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By Jack Ganssle
The Age of Ignorance
Though I don't always agree with columnist George Will's opinions, his erudite writing and careful reasoning makes for enjoyable reading.
Until this: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/06/25/AR2008062501945.html?hpid=opinionsbox1 . While celebrating the integrated circuit he wrote: "Modernity means the multiplication of dependencies on things utterly mysterious to those who are dependent -- things such as semiconductors, which control the functioning of almost everything from cellphones to computers to cars."
What nonsense. Of course the modern world is based on complex science and technology. But if anything, "modernity" means, or at least has brought, a multiplicity of ways to understand these marvelous creations and ideas. There have never been more books and other media that describe the essentials of every facet of the modern world, in ways accessible to any interested and reasonably-literate layperson. For instance, James Gleick's Chaos is a fascinating and eminently-readable description about the obscure subject of sensitive dependence on initial conditions in dynamical systems. It ranks 10,732 on Amazon's list of books, not bad for such an arcane subject.
Are the ideas behind quantum mechanics accessible only to physics PhDs? Maybe George Will thinks so, but try Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed by Jim Al-Khalili. The first half is a breathtaking romp through the fascinating notions of this, the most basic of all sciences. The second half was, to me at least, rather perplexing. But interesting. Thought provoking. And broadening.
As engineers we're pretty familiar with how things work. Frequent tear downs on this site give us the implementation details of all sorts of common consumer products. But any willing person with a high school education can get the essentials of most of these products. How does a TV work? ("By hitting the ON button" is not the correct answer). Go to howstuffworks.com for an in-depth and lucid explanation of the technology. The same ad-plagued site details the operation of computers and most of what makes the modern world tick.
Once the educated person was expected to have some knowledge of many things. Literature, philosophy, religion and the sciences were all essential parts of what was called a liberal education. But today too many buy into Will's eagerness to be nothing more than users of incomprehensible technology. Press the green button and the systems behaves in some manner, but the connection between the button and the action is utterly mysterious. Elected buffoons make no attempt to understand the science they legislate.
That's a return to the pre-Enlightenment belief in magic.
This is a comprehensible world. Only a few of us need to be nuclear physicists or molecular biologists. But the ideas behind all of those fields is within our reach. We should all take wonder and delight in how things work, in exploring different ideas whether they be in science, technology, or any other field. From genetic engineering to space science, many of the great debates of the coming years will derive from science.
Unless we're have an understanding of the basis of these issues, we'll be like the apes swinging clubs in "2001: A Space Odyssey."