BERTRAND Russell once observed that animal behaviorists studying the problem-solving abilities of chimpanzees consistently seemed to detect in their experimental subjects the "national characteristics" of the scientists themselves. A divergence in the findings of the practical-minded Americans and the theoretically inclined Germans was particularly apparent.
Animals studied by Americans rush about frantically, with an incredible display of hustle and pep, and at last achieve the desired result by chance. Animals observed by Germans sit still and think, and at last evolve the solution out of their inner consciousness.
In science, Germans tend to come up with things like the uncertainty principle. Americans tend to come up with things like the atomic bomb.
The latest field to host this conflict of national styles is one that seems at first glance to offer little prospect of a sporting contest. Bigger and better highways are as American as fast-food restaurants and sport utility vehicles, and when it comes to making the crooked straight and the rough places plain, the practicality of American traffic engineers is hard to argue with. As an American academic discipline, traffic engineering is centered in civil-engineering departments, and civil engineers tend to believe in solving problems by going at them head on. A recent study funded by nine state departments of transportation to examine the doubling in congestion on urban highways and primary roads that has occurred over the past two decades listed in its final report various ways that traffic engineers have tried to alleviate the problem. These included "add road space" and "lower the number of vehicles." This would not, as the saying goes, appear to be rocket science.
Even when American traffic engineers have ventured closer to rocket science, with computer simulations of traffic flow on multi-lane highways, the results have tended to reinforce the American reputation for practicality and level-headedness. The mathematical and computer models indicate that when traffic jams occur, they are the result of bottlenecks (merging lanes, bad curves, accidents), which constrict flow. Find a way to eliminate the bottlenecks and flow will be restored.