Tuesday, January 5, 2016

But what happened to good old science?

This last few decades have been touted as a time of immense technological advances. Wearable computers, electric cars, 3D printers, drones etc. And this has made us all be somewhat smug, and somewhat whimsically optimistic about the future.However, sometimes I wonder.

The 18th, 19th and early 20th century were so rife with inventions and scientific discoveries. Electricity, steam and internal-combustion engines, flying - as different from merely generating equal or greater downward thrust to lift an object upwards, the semiconductor and the solid-state switch, nuclear reactions that can produce energy in copious amounts, etc.

These were all scientific advances. The knowledge did not exist before. It was previously believed impossible by the laws of nature.

On the other hand; what do we have in the last few decades?
  • Faster and faster computers because we managed to make them smaller and smaller - until we hit the theoretical limit on how small we could make them. And so we started making multi-core computers. Hard disk sizes shrank and eventually got replaced by solid state devices. 
  • The computer itself shrunk in size into the idea of smart-phones and iPads, and even wearables, some of which are high on the hype-factor, but have marginal actual utility. Really though, the question I ask is, what is new in an iPad or a wearable, that science did not know for the last 50 years or so?
  • The internal combustion engine is getting replaced often by the electric motor. People tout this as a technological advancement, but in actuality, this is a technological and scientific throwback. Because we are unable to be innovative in improving the efficiency of the internal combustion engine itself, we are replacing it with something simpler and more elementary; in short, working around the problem rather than solving the problem itself. This one makes me particularly sad because a lot of where we are today is thanks to the internal combustion engine - yet, it hasn't seen any significant improvements aside from fuel injection in some 50 years or so. 
  • We now have drones - miniaturized aircraft with a camera on board. Back in the pioneer days of aviation, there was a dream that one day, everyone would have their personal aircraft. The drone seems like the poping of that dream, followed by a settlement in favor of much lesser personal aircraft. What is new in a drone, that was not known to science for 50  years now?
  • We have today an omnipresent pervasion of wireless. However, again, this is technology / engineering and not really science itself. 

Additionally, there are some notable backward steps on the front of technology itself - where the technology involved is complex.
  • When was the last time man went to an extra-terrestrial location such as the moon? 
  • When was the last time a supersonic jet carrying passengers flew? 

Another thing that worries me to admit is what people know today vs. what people knew back in the day. Kids back in the day grew up knowing how to fix their own stuff. Even cars. People that went to school for computer science knew enough to build their own computers from logic circuits. They grew up with rigging their own RC cars and airplanes. Today, kids are lost in a spoon-fed world of video games and movies and TV shows. And I wonder where the new Virtual Reality devices coming to market today will take them.

Yes, there's a lot of technology. But what happened to good old science?


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