Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, May 16, 2011

plus ça change

I am a nearly lifelong subscriber to Scientific American, since my grandparents gave me a gift subscription when I was 13. For some reason, when I was in college, I got in the habit of saving them. I recently moved from my home of 25 years and since I was handling all those back issues I started to take a look at them.

It's very interesting to see the state of science 30 years ago, compared with where it is today. Broadly, I would say that the rapid technological change we've experienced in that time obscures the lack of any major revolutions in basic science. In the April, 1981 issue Howard Georgi provided a complete exegesis of the Standard Model of the elementary particles and forces which is essentially unchanged today. Particle physicists have been pursuing his vision of a unified theory, but the building blocks of nature as we know it were already understood.

Other issues from that era describe the DNA-RNA-protein mechanics, the life of the cell, the immune system, and the other essentials of biology. All we've done since really is fill in more and more detail. Inflationary cosmology, as explained by Alan Guth, is still largely accepted. To be sure, cosmologists have run into some difficulties, labeled dark energy and dark matter, but these are new mysteries, not new conclusions. Complex systems dynamics ("chaos") was discovered in the '80s, the "RNA world" hypothesis of the origin of life was also discussed in the April 1981 issue by Manfred Eigen and colleagues, the quantum theory was fully developed, computer science was actually further developed than you might think -- the April 1981 issue also includes an article on speech recognition software. And yes, they knew about anthropogenic climate change caused by burning fossil fuel way back then.

But there are some pretty big differences between SciAm of 1981 and SciAm of today. For one thing, the articles back then were longer, and more challenging. They have more mathematics, and take you down closer to the bare metal of the specialized ideas. There was Martin Gardner's Mathematical Games column which gave readers substantial intellectual challenges every month. The magazine is still worth your while, but it has been dumbed down, a lot, to conform to shorter attention spans and less erudition. The basic courses in biology, physics, and astronomy have changed hardly at all in 30 years -- but fewer people have a grasp of them, and fewer still invest the time to keep up.

Oh yeah, I meant to mention this ad, from the April 1981 issue. It's from Texaco, and it features a picture of the totally irrelevant Bob Hope:

America's got enough coal to keep your lights on for hundreds of years. And Texaco's coal gasification process could mean you won't have to worry about how it affects the environment.

One of the main problems with burning coal to generate electricity has been, of course, to burn it in an environmentally acceptable manner. But Texaco's developed a process to turn our most plentiful energy resources into clean-burning fuel gas which can be used to produce power for generating electricity.

We've already proven the gassification proces in small-scale plants. Now Texaco is working with other companies and organizations to build a large coal gasification/electrical generating plant in the Mojave Desert. It will turn thousands of tons of coal a day into electricity. Some years from now, Texaco's investment in coal gasification technology will mean you'll have the electricity you need -- without having worrying about environmental effects.

Uh huh. Just remember: There's no such thing as clean coal.


roger said...

i can recall older sciam issues with articles that passed my understanding within 3 paragraphs. i was amazed a few years ago to pick up an issue and find that i knew more than most of the articles. i have picked up (and forgotten!) a few bits of knowledge in between those two encounters with sciam but it has certainly dumbed down.

mmmmmmmm coal.

Anonymous said...

plus ca change...


Anonymous said...

plus ca change...