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Karl Giberson

THE SCIENCE PAGES: Technology from A to Z

In Visions of Technology, Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young) tells this story:

I once went down to Neil's ranch, and he rowed me out to the middle of the lake. Then he waved at someone invisible, and music started to play from the countryside. I realized Neil had his house wired as the left speaker and his barn wired as the right speaker. And from the shore Elliot Mazer, his engineer, shouted, "How is it?" And Neil shouted back, "More barn!"

I love technology; I love my home theater system with its huge subwoofer; I love my 200 cd megachanger (Bruce Hornsby is singing in the background); I love my computer and all the cool stuff that comes over the Internet (excuse me for a moment while I click on a bookmark and see how my technology stocks are doing—good, they are up again); I love the morning ritual of checking my e-mail—so much more fun than the old trip to the rusting, passive, mute mailbox. Ditto for microwave ovens, washing machines, bread makers, and even my cantankerous lawn mower. And I love to play with my new laser pointer. When I reflect a bit, I am also grateful for the medical technology that has saved the lives and lessened the suffering of family members, including my children. I have no interest in a world without technology. More barn, as Neil Young would say.

I also hate technology. I hate the way our lives require electricity to run so that we become strangely comatose when the power grid goes down, standing around in hallways with nothing to do except wait for the Restoration; I hate the endless upgrading of computers, software, phone services, and video games that has become a normal part of life at the end of the twentieth century; I hate the way everything, including my car, has a ten-cent electronic part in it now that renders it unusable when the ten-cent part breaks. I worry about the strange new mutant English spawned by e-mail and "AOL Instant Messages." I hate the way my daughter talks on the phone all the time, and complains that our ten-year-old car needs to be replaced. I hate having three TVs. I hate the way people visit with each other by watching television "together." Too much barn.

There is no simple "response" to the question of technology. Technology is no more "one thing" to which a single response can be formulated than religion, or television, or food is one thing. Technology, whether we view it from the terrified perspective of disenfranchised neo-Luddites, or the drooling enthusiasm of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, is so interwoven with our modern way of life that there is simply no external vantage point from which to look at it. In fact, as one of the pieces in Visions of Technology points out, the majority of people reading this sentence now would not even be here if it were not for the medical advances of this century.

The editor of Visions of Technology is Richard Rhodes, one of the great nonfiction writers of our time, author of the massive, superb, and Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb as well as a number of other major works. Visions is an eclectic collection of 200 brief excerpts providing a series of chronologically arranged perspectives on the technological advances of the century just ending. The tale is extraordinary, considering the fact that it can all be told within the lifetime of our oldest citizens. In deed, one of the first essays in Visions is by Guglielmo Marconi, celebrating the initial "Messages Without Wires," which crossed the Atlantic from Corn wall, England, to Saint John's, Newfoundland, in 1901, the year my grand father was born. (But Marconi's story is actually far more interesting than the hagiography many of us encountered in childhood reading, as we will see below when we look at Keith Laidler's more detailed treatment in To Light Such a Candle.)

Close on the heels of Marconi's achievement came the proliferation of the automobile and the airplane; a great world war revealed the more deadly side of technology. By 1929, the year my father was born, sociologists like Robert and Helen Lynd had "unearthed the beginnings of the technological division between parents and adolescents that later decades would be moan." Their pioneering study, Middletown (based on Muncie, Ind.), recalled a golden yesteryear when families spent evenings together and neighbors dropped by and "sat on the lawn," an activity that bored the teenagers, who wanted to go off and drive with their friends.

The excerpts in Visions covering the period from the Depression to the end of World War II outline a growing confidence in the possibility and then the reality of the atomic bomb. Contributions by luminaries such as Robert Oppenheimer, Gen. Leslie Groves, and Vannevar Bush provide revealing insights into how that complex and epoch-defining enterprise was viewed at the time. Postwar reflections on the bomb in subsequent essays reveal a growing demoralization with the role that science and technology played. The great Oppenheimer—the intellectual father of the bomb—best captured this sentiment: "In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose."

Rhodes's selections for the postwar boom chronicle an emerging excitement with the "magic" of technology in the development of the transistor and the digital computer and countless new products, from frozen orange juice to the birth-control pill. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the year I was born. The U.S. government was galvanized by the upstaging, and suddenly Big Science was given a blank checkbook. Rhodes's selections from the sixties include two pieces on the American space program by John Glenn, one a delightful first-person account of weightlessness; also included here are "The First Laser," by its inventor, Theodore Maiman; Eisenhower's famous warning about the "military-industrial complex"; a number of environmental pieces by people like Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner; a couple of essays on the emergence of Japan; and a variety of speculations about the future of computers.

What is remarkable about many of these important technological achievements is the degree to which they rested on the fundamental scientific discoveries of the first half of the century. What had looked to many like esoteric, ivory-tower speculation during the Golden Age of Physics, when scientists like Bohr, Heisenberg, Einstein, and Dirac were—as we say in the trade—at the "peak of their powers," turned out to be highly useful results with a cornucopia of surprising applications.

The final section of Rhodes's book brings us to the present. A disturbing piece on the Challenger disaster, which occurred as my first child was learning to walk, shows the folly of a "system" where managers overrule engineers. An engineer named Roger Boisjoly sent a memo to the Engineering VP at Morton Thiokol in July 1985 with the in tent to "insure that management is fully aware of the seriousness of the current O-Ring erosion problem." Notes that Boisjoly took at a meeting the day before the fateful launch (Jan. 28, 1986) reveal strong opposition from relevant engineers about the ability of the infamous O-Rings to do their jobs in the unusually low temperatures anticipated for the launch.1

Near the end of Visions, there is an essay by the late Julian Simon, the scourge of the Club of Rome and the Zero Population Growth movement, promising us that the "only impending shortage is a shortage of economic shortages" but offering us no hope on the "non-material aspects of human existence"; Simon laments that "we have no particular place to go. The species lacks any goal external to its own biological nature."

A fuller story of technology in this century is told by Keith Laidler in To Light Such a Candle. Where Rhodes provides quick glances at finished products, Laidler's more substantial treatment reveals the elaborate, yet invisible, foundations on which contemporary technology rests.

The image of the growth of a coral reef is helpful here. Coral reefs start as great circles around an island that is sinking—an extinct volcano, say. The coral fixes itself to the island and grows along the shore, just where the water meets the land, living in the water but breathing the air, so to speak. As the island slowly sinks under the water, submerging the newly formed coral, new layers of coral form on the top of the submerging layers. Finally the island—the original foundation on which everything has been built—disappears under the ocean, and a great structure of coral sits securely in its place, resting firmly on a vast under water coral structure that formed very slowly over many centuries on the top of an island that has all but disappeared.

So it is with technology. Our lives are filled with the visible presence of recent technological accomplishment; but this visible layer rests on deep foundational layers that once were "on top" but have now been buried deep, out of sight and all but forgotten. Who recalls, as he turns on the car radio, the deeply submerged James Clerk Maxwell, whose pioneering work in electromagnetism made that radio a possibility?

And who knows the full story of Marconi? Marconi's success was the result of an astonishingly fortuitous combination of opportunism and ignorance. Marconi had plagiarized all his equipment from English physicists studying radio and had somehow convinced himself that his "marconiwaves" would not be prevented by the curvature of earth from traveling across the ocean. The physicists looked on and laughed, confident that Marconi's waves would travel in a straight line off into space, and miss North America altogether. Instead, the marconiwaves bounced off an undiscovered layer of ions in the upper atmosphere and were received by antennas in Newfoundland, just as Marconi had predicted, but for entirely different reasons.

To Light Such a Candle is exhaustively researched, carefully written, and enhanced with many photographs and figures and an occasional personal appearance by the author in his own narrative. Laidler's goal is not to celebrate or lament our technological achievement but to show its intimate relationship to fundamental science and thereby to enable readers, among whom he hopes will be "politicians and their advisors," to understand the technology that is "completely transforming society."

Laidler chooses seven themes—steam engines, photography, electric power, radio transmission, electronics, large molecules (including DNA), and nuclear power—some of which we en countered above. The presentation of each theme is historical, starting with unformed ideas that develop into specific problems that are solved through some very hard scientific work and not a little bit of luck. Al though Laidler's prose is occasionally dry, he clearly has a good narrative sense, and his stories are filled with fascinating detail.

The story of thermodynamics, for example, is a strange tale beginning with the first steam engines and driven by the need to understand and improve those engines, an exercise often accompanied by reflection on how they worked and how to make them work better. Obviously heat, as it whistled out of the boiler, was doing work; but how? What was heat, anyway? What was work?

How we came to understand that heat and work are two forms of energy makes a good story, populated by eccentric and often tortured geniuses. Count Rumford, for example, left New Hampshire in 1776, abandoning his wife and daughter to spy for the British during the War for Independence; along the way he managed to figure out that heat had a mechanical equivalent and was not a substance as his contemporaries maintained. Ludwig Boltzmann was responsible for extending thermodynamics into statistical mechanics. Thermodynamics is a macroscopic theory, describing things in terms of energies, temperatures, and entropies. Statistical mechanics is a microscopic theory gathering its explanatory power from the ability to describe thermodynamic phenomena as deriving from the atoms and molecules that make up the material. Boltzmann's theories assumed the physical reality of atoms, a somewhat controversial proposition at the end of the nineteenth century. De pressed that his colleagues rejected his theories, Boltzmann tried several times to kill himself; finally, in 1906, "on holiday with his wife and daughter and while they were out swimming, he hanged himself from the window of his hotel room."

The story of Michael Faraday's discovery of electromagnetism is equally absorbing. Faraday was just sufficiently ignorant of the prevailing Newtonian science of his day to avoid being blinded by the weaknesses of that paradigm, a distinct advantage since electricity and magnetism behaved in some distinctively non-Newtonian ways. Faraday's scientific legacy was such that, in Laidler's judgment, he would have won six Nobel Prizes, had they existed during his lifetime. He belonged to a fundamentalist sect called the Sandemanians (similar to Quakers), so strict that he once got in trouble for skipping a service because he had been summoned to see Queen Victoria!

Indeed, along with excellent concise summaries of scientific developments, To Light Such a Candle is filled with good stories—stories of scientific genius, human foibles, and dedication to seemingly thankless tasks of endless duration. Faraday's successor James Clerk Maxwell was the first scientist to break with the tradition of using only models that could be visualized in simple scientific terms. His elegant, highly symmetrical mathematical formulations were an important part of Einstein's inspiration. Heinrich Hertz (after whom the "Hz" on your speakers is named) is, Laidler informs us, the "only famous scientist who had his biography written by his mother" (one might object that Alan Turing is another, though Turing was not yet famous when his mother published the first account of his life). J. J. Thomson discovered the electron but was so clumsy in the lab that when he approached apparatus being run by his assistants, "they prayed silently that he would not touch it, as almost inevitably he would do it some damage." Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays almost by accident; his discovery struck fear into the heart of many women, who "believed that men would be able to carry X-Ray machines about with them and see too many details of feminine anatomy."

No book of this kind would be complete without an anecdote or two about Albert Einstein. Fortunately, Laidler was a graduate student at Princeton while Einstein was there and often encountered him on the street in "costume"—no socks, no tie. I have heard many wonderful Einstein stories but—until reading Laidler—had never heard the one about Einstein coming "home" occasionally to the wrong house, where the proper residents would be surprised to find him sitting in their living room reading the paper, oblivious to the fact that this was not where he lived.

What I find most curious about technology is the odd, seemingly organic route that it takes on its way into our lives. It is a popular misconception that all, or even most, technological innovation is motivated by a perceived need—that "necessity is the mother of invention." When, for ex ample, the automobile engine was in vented, it was seven feet high, weak, heavy, and hopelessly unreliable, hardly seeming to pose a challenge to the horse and buggy, which were very well adapted to the transportation needs of the time. In fact, it took quite a few years and a lot of lobbying before there was much interest in automobiles. The engine was invented in the first place because an inventor wanted to see if it could be done; once completed, it went in search of an application. When Edison built his first phonograph in 1877 he published an article proposing uses that people might find for it.2 And it bothered him that the reproduction of music be came its primary function. Invention, it would seem, is the mother of necessity, not the other way around, as the conventional wisdom would indicate.

Just as our hands did not evolve to play the piano, nor our legs to ride bicycles, so the computer was not invented to write essays nor the laser to read compact disks. But how delightful that all these applications have been discovered! And the underlying science on which technology rests is even more surprising. Einstein started down the road to the bomb and E = mc2 by speculating what the world would look like to an observer riding on a beam of light. And Neil Young's outdoor stereo is based on deep principles of quantum mechanics first conceived by Max Planck as he tried to understand radiation.

As I am completing this essay, an odd combination of activities is taking place outside my office door. One of my senior engineering students is working on the painstaking task of transcribing a taped interview for this journal. In the office next to her, my engineering colleague is working on the complex problem of getting computers to recognize human speech. When that task is done, there will be no more tedious transcription work: a computer program will listen to the tape and print out a transcript. Or at least that is what one might guess will happen. But we see the technological future through a glass darkly if we see it at all. Perhaps future issues of this journal will arrive on small disks the size of a dime, to be played on tiny solar-powered units that sit on our ears. Perhaps interviews will not need to pass through the pipeline of print; maybe subscribers will be able to hear the voice of the celebrated interviewee speaking directly to them. And what will we think of that world? More barn.

Karl Giberson is professor of physics at Eastern Nazarene College.

  1. For an account that challenges the conventional wisdom on this much-published incident, see "The Naked Launch: Assigning Blame for the Challenger Explosion," in Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, The Golem at Large: What You Should Know About Technology (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998).
  2. These included, among others, recording the last words of dying people, announcing clock time, and teaching spelling. Clearly there was no "necessity" that mothered the invention of the phonograph. See also Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Norton, 1997), pp. 242-64.
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