How holy a grail can rhubarb really be?

Does a term borrowed from Arthurian legend get maybe too much of a workout in the news media?

John Nordell
Harvard professors are using organic chemicals to develop the enormous storage batteries needed for large-scale renewable energy systems. They have studied the way energy can be stored in a class of organic compounds called quinones. One of the first sources of quinones the professors worked with was rhubarb.

Storage: It’s a big deal in the renewable energy sector. Had the movie “The Graduate” been set in 2017 instead of 1967, that one-word bit of unsolicited career guidance its hero, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), received might well have been not “plastics,” but “storage.” 

Developers of solar and wind energy are keen to find ways to store electricity for use when the sun isn’t shining or the winds aren’t blowing. 

Which is how we get to the rhubarb battery. 

A recent radio report told how some Harvard professors are using organic chemicals to develop the enormous storage batteries needed for large-scale renewable energy systems. 

They have studied the way energy can be stored in a class of organic compounds called quinones. One of the first sources of quinones the professors worked with was rhubarb – yes, as in pie. 

“The press picked up on that and called it a rhubarb battery,” one of the professors interviewed said with a laugh. “We prefer to call it an organic megaflow battery.”

We pesky news media – we’re always looking for cute names for things. But why would we call something a rhubarb battery when we can call it an organic megaflow battery?

In fact, the professors have moved beyond rhubarb to test other compounds – tens of thousands of them. And they are “hot on the trail” of a quick, cheap, and safe storage system, “considered the renewable energy holy grail,” the report said.

“I think we have a fighting chance of delivering on that ‘holy grail’ within a decade,” one of the researchers said.

Do we need a more apt cliché here?

The Monitor stylebook used to have a rather tartly worded note to the effect that use of holy grail should be confined to a “spiritual quest” of some sort. 

By inference, it was not to be an all-purpose synonym for “the most important goal in whatever field we’re talking about.”

That guidance has since been relaxed. In its latest iteration, the stylebook merely cautions against capitalizing the term when it’s not “the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper,” which, in my experience, does not come up in the news very often.

The lowercase holy grail, though, shows up in all kinds of contexts: “Nvidia’s first HDR G-Sync monitors are basically the holy grail of PC displays,” according to PCWorld

An investment newsletter ran a piece on Christmas Eve headlined “The Search For The Holy Grail Of Investing.” It was accompanied by a photo of an actual grail (chalice) of the sort familiar to those who know it as part of Arthurian legend, as depicted, for instance, in the wonderful Edwin Austin Abbey murals in the Boston Public Library

Irony? Who knows?

An Australian newspaper even ran a piece recently characterizing a fisherman’s enormous catch as a “holy grail cod.”

Well, at least they didn’t capitalize it. But what would Sir Galahad think?

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.