[time-nuts] Help - Hope?

Rob Seaman seaman at NOAO.EDU
Tue Jan 3 02:13:22 EST 2006

John Miles says:

> I think we're seeing the technology shift to a different level of  
> abstraction

Yes - this is certainly true of software, for instance.  Our team  
attended JavaOne this year - along with 15,000 rabid (and much  
younger) technophiles.  Object oriented programming replaces  
procedural programming replaces assembler coding replaces machine  
code - in significantly under one career length.  As an  
undergraduate, I programmed a 6502 "KIM" to do productive work (plot  
time series photometry via an A/D connected to a photomultiplier) in  
machine code via its hex pad.  Now you can generate OO code direct  
from UML (or so they claim - have yet to see it demonstrated  
practically).  (Algorithms remain algorithms, however.)

And no - physics remains physics.  We're still building telescopes  
out of big shiny mirrors using optical principles well known to  
Fresnel and Fraunhofer.  I'm reading the history of the first  
Atlantic telegraph cable.  Great story full of details like Kelvin's  
invention of the precision galvanometer - virtually identical to the  
torsion devices whose mirrors I learned to read as an undergraduate.   
It may well be that TI or HP or Fluke will sell you a totally digital  
handheld gizmo with greater sensitivity (and "features"), but you  
still have to know as much about electrical circuits to use the new  
gizmos as you did the old gizmos.  Meanwhile, it is apparently the  
case that today's cable laying ships still use cable handling  
techniques perfected during the travails of the first transatlantic  
cable venture 150 years ago.  Some things change.  Some things stay  
the same.

What fundamentally remains the same is the reality underlying all our  
technology.  Won't belabor the question of layering UTC on Earth  
orientation via mean solar time.  Focus instead on the "works" of  
atomic clocks (or related gizmos like masers or whatever comes  
next).  The levels of abstraction may be compressed to hide the  
details of intervening layers of complexity, but the two parts that  
will always remain are the user interface (itself an interesting  
reflection of human factors), and at the other end, the basic physics  
of whatever phenomena.

I suspect I'm not alone on this list in volunteering as a local  
science fair judge.  I focus on the middle school physical science  
projects as providing the most opportunity for encouraging a future  
career choice.  Ignore the scoring rubric.  The general award rules  
provide for first/second/third prizes with ties for second and third  
place, so the goal is simply to identify and rank the top five  
projects.  It can be difficult (to put it mildly) to infer the mental  
state of most of the participants, but there are always a few that  
stand out (even after discounting the projects resulting from Science  
Olympiad, etc).

Really, all that matters at that age is a sense of creativity.   
Actually, I weight any evidence of true curiosity and, well, fun even  
higher.  These are rare (especially under the crushing weight of  
"standards"), but every year reveals new kids finding new ways of  
looking at familiar territory.  I invariably leave more optimistic  
than when I arrived.

Bottom line is that a scientific world view is likely no more  
prevalent now than it was in the middle ages.  But it is likely no  
less prevalent, either.  This is the world of Burning Man, the "Long  
Now", and public key cryptography.  My neighbor is an AF pilot whose  
son is rebuilding a Corvette from the ground up.  These are not folks  
full of technological angst.  We just happen to be in the natural  
pause between the first Moon landings and our inevitable (albeit  
politicized) return.  We'll miss this time of relative quiet when  
it's gone.

Suggesting that the love of technological pursuits is dying out is  
kind of like those 19th century ruminations that all of scientific  
knowledge was well in hand, or that guy who figured out several  
decades ago that all possible songs had already been written.  Not  
too worried at this end.

Rob Seaman
National Optical Astronomy Observatory

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