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Boot force

A scientific approach to car maintenance

Ian Brooks 26 November 2006

Trunk road: it's jungle in there

I have Ph.D. in molecular genetics. I can splice genes together. How hard can it be to change a light bulb?

It’s the time of year dreaded by most motorists – when your car has to be subjected to its annual road-worthiness test. Over here in the States things are done a little differently from the UK’s standard MOT. For starters, each state sets its own standards. This is very handy if, say, you’re my friend Rob, an impoverished Ph.D. student living in Pennsylvania but hailing originally from West Virginia. Pennsylvania driving standards, though by no means strict, are positively draconian compared to those from neighboring West Virginia, a state the size of Ireland with the population of Birmingham. Therefore enterprising young academics like Rob simply keep their cars registered in West Virginia and, once a year, made a trip home to get the car inspection done. This often seemed to entail nothing more than someone adding yet more duct tape to the undercarriage in an effort to stop the transmission dropping out. Just ignore the plumes of foul-smelling and highly toxic fumes pouring from his exhaust pipe – there’s no way one state will impinge on the rights of another. No siree! Let’s just hope there’s no Pennsylvanians nearby when she finally blows up.

I’m now living in Tennessee, in the Mid-South of the US. In the interests of journalistic integrity, and on the lookout for more fun facts, I visited the CIA website and can reliably inform you, with the full weight of this august national institution behind me, that Tennessee is slightly smaller than Bulgaria and slightly larger than Guatemala. For reference, the UK is slightly smaller than Oregon. Oregon is about a third larger than Tennessee; therefore, Tennessee is about two-thirds the size of the UK. However, the UK has about 630 people per square mile, whereas we only have 133. So, Tennessee is really rather big, and also comparatively sparsely populated.

This mathematical and geographic preamble leads to the following point: because Tennessee is like West Virginia, in the size vs. population ratio, we too have fairly lax car inspection rules. You quite literally drive into a large shed and prove that your headlights, brake lights, indicators and wipers work. A nice, uniformed gentleman then violates your car’s right to privacy by sticking a sensor up its exhaust, and providing the output is no worse than the smog over Tehran, you’re good to go. I went through this a year ago when I moved down here. I think my surprise and naiveté were evident by my disbelieving “But, is that it?” at every step of the process.

Now, a year later, it was time for me to go again. I carried with me the surety that the test would go as smoothly because, only a few weeks before, I had to spend over $1000 on car repairs. Mostly my fault; I accidentally forgot to change the oil for a few thousand miles. And kind of forgot to get the 50,000 mile inspection done. Little things, really. So imagine my surprise when the nice man with the probe said I had failed my inspection (notice the “my” – it really does get terribly personal).

“Failed?” I cried.

“Yes, sir.”


“Now lookit here in yonder mirror,” – pronounced mirr’ – “and that taillight don’t work.”



That was the gist of our conversation, but he assured me that all I had to do was replace the bulb and come back, at which point they’d confirm the lights worked and I’d pass inspection. This seemed, at the time, like excellent news. After all, how hard could it be to change a brake light?

A little over two hours later I finally found an auto-store which carried the right kind of light bulb. Who would have guessed that my car manufacturer would have had changed its mind half way through production of the particular model I drive and altered the bulb specifications? Nonplussed, I girded my loins and, light bulb in hand, strode to the boot/trunk of car and got ready to install it. I have Ph.D. in molecular genetics. I can splice genes together. How hard could it be to change a light bulb?

Now, I’m a scientist by both training and long experience. One thing that clearly defines scientists is that we love a puzzle. We’re professionally curious, highly trained problem solvers; the more abstract the puzzle the better. So imagine my cries of delight when I opened the trunk of my car and found that the “easy access” panel I had expected was actually a hermetically sealed unit.

When one is faced with a dilemma like this in lab, there are two steps to be taken. Firstly, one consults a fellow professional for advice. This often saves a lot of time in because an expert will be able to guide you through the initial steps of a new preparation or experiment. Secondly, or firstly if there is no professional to consult, one turns to the literature. Scientists live by the maxim publish or perish. In my field, about thirty high-profile scientific papers are published every month, as well as countless ones of the lower profile description. Naturally, that’s a lot of reading, but it’s also a great resource when tackling a new problem.

I looked around my parking lot for the requisite professional and noticed a dearth of auto mechanics. Not too surprising considering that I was in the parking lot of a medical school. The second natural step was therefore to consult the literature. Ph.D. metaphorically in hand, I opened the glove compartment and fetched out the User’s Guide – and invaluable thesis that has helped me numerous times to locate arcane pieces of equipment like the oil gauge dibber thingy, the wiper fluid holder thingy and the spare tire. This time, however, I was undone.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult on modern cars for the user to replace burned out bulbs,” it began. Well, no shit Sherlock, I thought, you’ve hermetically sealed the access panel. The manual continued: “Hardest of all are the front lights due to the proximity of the engine. It is suggested you consult your local professional dealer for all necessary repairs.” I’m sure you can see the obvious non sequitur in that statement: I needed to change the rear light. And I’m expected to pay someone $60 an hour to do a two minute job for a $2 part. I think not.

When a scientist has availed him or herself of the two primary options and found them wanting, there is but one recourse: The Internet. God bless search engines. Back in the lab, I located a site explaining how to enter the sealed access panel and change the tail light. During this process, I discovered some new features about my car. For example, the highly skilled technician who changes rear lights for $60 an hour would have had to use a flat head screwdriver to wrench open the sealed access panel. And even more exciting was the discovery that you have to remove the whole light fitting, cover and all, and replace the bulb from the outside. Thankfully I also discovered that my “modern” car is built like a child’s Lego set and is mostly constructed of snap-together plastic parts.

I like to think my highly trained scientific mind was of great use to me as I applied The Scientific Method to solve a novel and interesting problem. Perhaps in the long run it was – it certainly saved me $60 and the humiliation of going to a mechanic for such a trivial problem. In the short term, however, I have to dash off and get the trunk of my car re-sprayed, have the boot-dents knocked out of the side panels and then head to court to appeal my citation for public indecency.

Fortunately, I’m pretty sure that screaming abuse at a car in a public lot is covered by my right to free speech.