Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Where credit is due

Unless this is your first visit -- in which case, "Hi!" -- you likely know that I'm a onetime physicist and computer engineer, and that I remain interested in science and technology.

It continually amazes me how few people I meet have any interest in either subject area.

Admittedly, seemingly esoteric things can fascinate me. (Like whether, as recent experiments suggest, neutrinos can travel faster than light. Like the nature of dark energy: a label of convenience for our present state of ignorance, not an explanation for the accelerating expansion of the universe.)

But my fascination with the cutting edge of science isn't why others' disinterest in science and tech surprises -- and, yes, saddens -- me. Come. Travel with me to my youth.

I remember cars that got ~15 miles per gallon; polluted like crazy; picked up (badly) only ground-based radio, and in which an 8-track tape player was a coveted upgrade; lacked routing support beyond a glove box for maps (that would never refold properly); and were deathtraps in any accident.

I remember TVs that were small, monaural, black and white, low res, and could pick up (again, badly) only a handful of local stations. If you missed a show in that primitive era, that was your tough luck. It was an era before the VCR, let alone DVD, Blu-Ray, TiVo, on-demand cable, or streaming video.

I grew up before, among other things: personal computers, the Internet, iPods, cell phones (not merely smart phones), and digital cameras.

How long before? I remember fondly when transistor radios first hit the market. The revolutionary music devices of my youth -- like iPods -- were portable and pocket-sized. I loved them. Everyone loved them.

A few other things that were absent from my youth: CAT scans, PET scans, and MRIs. Genetically engineered drugs. Electromechanical prostheses. The human genome, sequenced. Statins to lower cholesterol.

And so, I remember when life expectancy was much shorter than today.  Polio was a scourge -- that terrible image nearby is of polio victims, confined for the remainder of their lives in iron lungs. Cancer was a death sentence. Hunger, not obesity, was the nutritional problem.

I remember a time before the first artificial satellite, the first man in space, and the first man on the moon. (I'm not old enough to remember the breaking of the sound barrier.) I remember when no planet but our own had ever been inspected up close, and astronomers still debated whether other suns even had planets.

I could continue (a symptom of my advanced age :-) ), but I think I've made my point. There's been a lot of improvement to the human condition within less than one lifetime -- through the efforts and accomplishments of scientists and technologists.

How can anyone not find science and technology interesting?  By cracky (said slapping my knee), I just don't get that.


Erik said...

Probably because science does not directly produce these benefits, technology does. Science lays all the groundwork and shows what is possible. Technology applies science to improve lives. Most people only see technology.

This is probably also why Soft SciFi seems to be a more popular genre than Hard SciFi. Soft SciFi is about technology (lasers, jetpacks). Hard SciFi is about questions (what is possible, what is likely).

Polio might be near extinction, but things haven't gone so well with the Measles. People loved the technology (the vaccine) while it was present and obvious. When measles went away the technology became less apparent. Many people ignored the science and decided to stop using the vaccine. Now Measles is on the rise again.

Edward M. Lerner said...

That said, Erik, in my experience many people separate a love of their gadgets from any interest in the tech (never mind the science) that makes possible said gadgets.

Consider the guts of a modern smartphone: the wireless technology, high-density rechargeable battery, touchscreen, CPU, scads of memory, GPS receiver, and accelerometer -- all made tiny. How many people apreciate these marvels?

- Ed