Managerial energy is a renewable

22 January 2001

It was sad to hear of the death of South-African-born Professor David Hall, one of the twentieth century’s solar energy stalwarts. Hall was a tireless and witty advocate, mostly but not exclusively in the biomass sector, and during the last 25 years of his life visited nearly half the countries in the world to promote the use of grown green energy sources. I remember talking to him quite a long time ago about prospects for artificial photosynthesis as an energy source. Inevitably the conversation turned to the work of George Porter, the great British figure in research on almost-literally green energy. Hall was evidently in awe of ‘big G’, as he called the already knighted and soon to be ennobled scientist, but he seemed to me to be happier advancing the exploitation of natural photosynthesis than attempting its imitation. His expositions were masterly. He will be much missed.

Lord Porter, an accomplished chemist much taken with photomolecular science, presided over one of the world’s premier scientific academies, the UK’s Royal Society (which was founded in 1660) during the period 1985 to 1990. I remember a presidential address of his in which he touched lightly on a managerial fad of that time and ours – one of its current names is ‘restructuring’ – and in which he quoted appropriately from the words of the Roman, Caius Petronius, who wrote in the first century of the Christian era. Porter recalled that Petronius had noted experience of managerial machinations with remarks translated thus: Every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation. Porter must have thought these remarks deliciously pertinent. They have lost none of their savour to this day.

I remember, too, how Porter was challenged by a Latin scholar who claimed to have searched the literature vainly for the Petronius passage. She asked for chapter and verse but ‘big G’ was not forthcoming. In fact, if my information is correct, another Petronian scholar and literary sleuth has discovered that the comment was not written in CE 66 but in CE 1981. This investigator found that the passage had been made up by a classically educated and bored British army officer who had pinned it onto a military notice board in occupied Germany after the second world war.

The esteemed Lord Porter was not alone in use of that ‘quotation’. It still crops up, for example in power generating precincts. I guess that he may have had his suspicions but may still have found the synthetic composition irresistible? Long live voluminous current! Considering that French and English are probably still the favourite second languages of Anglophones and Francophones respectively, it is remarkable how often their translations go wrong.

I am informed that, at a recent World Energy Congress, held at Houston, USA, with French as an official language, one of the emergency exits was indicated as Urgence sort seul, which was rendered back into English by an amused French delegate as Emergency leaves alone.

The European business press was not long ago adorned by advertisements intended to promote the spread of Electricité de France’s services abroad. In its English-language version one of the advertisements offered to provide EdF’s hoped-for customers with ‘competitive energetic solutions’. Moreover, it declared, EdF was ‘willing to accompany your development by following you on all your sites in Europe and beyond’.

Around that time, too, EdF announced a joint trading venture with the Paris-based Louis Dreyfus group of companies. This group was founded in 1851 to deal in grain but its commercial activities grew to embrace other commodities and eventually to include electricity. The chairman of the group was reported a few years ago to foresee expansion of its electricity business as all-conquering deregulation created more opportunities for it. As quoted in the business newspaper, The Financial Times, his comment was Gallically enthusiastic: ‘Electricity is the most voluminous commodity in the world. And if you look at it the way one should, it is also the most volatile’.

I hope that I shall not draw too many readers’ condemnation of my own linguistic failings as I conclude, fervently, “Vive l’entente électrique!”.

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