Honda Accord alternator

The Mechanic as Scientist

Posted on Posted in Life Lessons

Recently, I drove to the gas station for fuel, and I noticed as I reached to turn off the ignition that the instrument panel flashed quickly. Although I noticed this, I turned the key before I could stop myself. So, I turned the ignition back over- the instrument panel illuminated, but the car wouldn’t start. I didn’t even hear the rapid “tick-tick-tick” of a starter solenoid indicative of a dead battery. At this point, I was perplexed. If the panel illuminates, it should have power, but the starter wasn’t even attempting to spin. Since I had no diagnostic tools with me, what should I try?


I first thought it could be the sensor on the gear selector; if it wasn’t registering that the car was in Park, it wouldn’t start. However, after several attempts at jiggling the selector in the Park position, the starter still didn’t turn. Next, I suspected there may be a blown fuse that controls the starter. I checked the fuses, but found none that were blown. I then decided to have someone help me jump start the car in the hopes that the battery was so low that it couldn’t engage the starter (although the instrument illuminated, the dome light was very dim). Sure enough, the car immediately started. It also immediately died when I removed the jumper cables. I then suspected that the alternator was failing. We reconnected the jumper cables and allowed the other car to charge my vehicle’s battery for about 20 minutes. I was then able to make the 2 mile drive back. During this drive, I noticed the battery light would illuminate on the dash when I drove at a constant speed but would darken if I accelerated; hence, I drove with the transmission in third to keep the rpm’s up even at a constant speed. Testing confirmed that the alternator was failing.


Was my approach one of nilly-willy, haphazard guessing? Nope. I’ve driven enough vehicles to at least have a list of possible suspects when I encounter vehicular problems. And believe it or not, I worked my way through this particular incident’s list using, of all things, the scientific method. Though I’m no mechanic, I realized that mechanics use this method themselves. Or at least they did before cars became 4,000 pound laptops that are diagnosed via onboard modems and bulky, tool branded tablets. For those of us who have forgotten the steps of the scientific method that we learned decades ago in 9th grade Physical Science with that dog-gone Mrs. Allen, who will be forever remembered as the… Well, I digress. The steps are:

  1. Make an observation.
  2. Form a question- the how or why of the observation.
  3. Form a hypothesis- your answer based on an educated guess
  4. Conduct an experiment- test the hypothesis.
  5. Analyze the data- was the hypothesis correct?


So, to begin with, I observed the panel illuminated but the starter didn’t engage. I then asked myself, “Why not?” My educated guess was that the gear selector sensor wasn’t reading the Park position. I experimented by jiggling the gear selector. I analyzed the data which revealed that the gear selector sensor had no effect. I then formulated another hypothesis (a blown fuse). Thus, I used the scientific method to finally arrived at the problem.


At this point, I have to say I’m not writing this simply to amuse the audience. Instead, I have two reasons for this article. The first reason is to arm you with a technique to help you possibly diagnose vehicular issues yourself so that you can potentially save money. The second, and most important, is to illustrate how quickly we make value judgments and how ill-founded those can be.


On an almost daily basis, I interact with a couple of mechanics (or automotive techs, as they are called since the advent of computer-based diagnoses). When I converse with them, they are generally sweaty and greasy. They pepper their speech with slang and grammatical irregularities. “That car ain’t firin’ right.” “It’s got a small leak right ‘ere.” They probably don’t read Scientific American, and they more than likely don’t play chess to pass the time of day. Or do they? I’ll bet you accepted those last two statements with no problem. You made that value judgment along with me. Mechanics, especially those who walk around grease laden and use ain’t and ‘ere, aren’t an intellectual crowd, most of us would assume. But I would like to pose a question: “Intellectually, what’s the difference in a mechanic and a scientist?” I say, “Very little.”


Without going into Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, we can recognize that some people naturally excel in one area where others may struggle. Some are naturally mathematically minded; some are naturally scientifically minded; some are musically minded; and some are mechanically minded. So, who’s most minded? If you want to better understand quantum entanglement, ask an astrophysicist. If you want to better understand intake valve lift and duration, ask a mechanic; two different realms with two different applications. The thing that is striking, though, is that the mechanic uses the scientific method as frequently and to the same extent as a full-fledged scientist. Which begs the question, “What makes a scientist a scientist?” I propose it’s inquiry based on the scientific method; hence, I consider a sweaty, greasy mechanic a scientist in his own right as much as The Science Guy. Remembering this will help us to realize everyone’s valuable; everyone’s important. And, everyone’s an expert in his/her respective field. Let’s treat each other accordingly.

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