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Posts Tagged ‘adding machine

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”*…

It’s very hard, historian of science Benjamin Breen explains, to understand the implications of a scientific revolution as one is living through it…

2023 is shaping up to be an important year in the history of science. And no, I’m not talking about the reputed room-temperature semiconductor LK-99, which seems increasingly likely to be a dud.

Instead, I’m talking about the discoveries you’ll find in Wikipedia’s list of scientific advances for 2023. Here are some examples:

• January: Positive results from a clinical trial of a vaccine for RSV; OpenAI’s ChatGPT enters wide use.

February: A major breakthrough in quantum computing; announcement of a tiny robot that can clean blood vessels; more evidence for the ability of psychedelics to enhance neuroplasticity; major developments in biocomputers.

• March: OpenAI rolls out GPT-4; continued progress on mRNA vaccines for cancer.

• April: NASA announces astronaut crew who will orbit the moon next year; promising evidence for gene therapy to fight Alzheimer’s.

• May: Scientists use AI to translate brain activity into written words; promising results for a different Alzheimer’s drug; human pangenome sequenced (largely by a team of UCSC researchers — go Banana Slugs!); more good news about the potential of mRNA vaccines for fighting cancer.

And skipping ahead to just the past two weeks:

• nuclear fusion ignition with net energy gain was achieved for the second time

• a radical new approach to attacking cancer tumors entered Phase 1 trials in humans

• and — announced just as I was writing this [in August, 2023] — one of the new crop of weight loss drugs was reported to cut rates of heart attack and stroke in high-risk individuals by 20% (!).

Also in January of 2023: the New York Times asked “What Happened to All of Science’s Big Breakthroughs?”

The headline refers to an article published in Nature which argues that there has been a steady drop in “disruptive” scientific and technological breakthroughs between the years of 1945 and 2010. Basically, it’s a restatement of the concept of a “Great Stagnation” which was proposed by the economist Tyler Cowen in 2011. Though the paper cites everyone from Cowen to Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t cite a single historian of science or technology (unless Alexandre Koyré counts)…

Naturally, as a historian of science and medicine, I think that there really are important things to learn from the history of science and medicine! And what I want to argue for the rest of this post boils down to two specific lessons from that history:

  1. People living through scientific revolutions are usually unaware of them — and, if they are, they don’t think about them in the same way that later generations do.
  2. An apparent slowdown in the rate of scientific innovation doesn’t always mean a slowdown in the impacts of science. The history of the first scientific revolution — the one that began in the famously terrible seventeenth century — suggests that the positive impacts of scientific innovation, in particular, are not always felt by the people living throughthe period of innovation. Periods when the pace of innovation appears to slow down may also be eras when society becomes more capable of benefitting from scientific advances by learning how to mitigate previously unforeseen risks.

[… There follows a fascinating look back at the 1660s– the “original” scientific revolution– at Boyle, Newton, at what they hoped/expected, and at how that differed for what their work and that of their colleagues actually yielded. Then the cautionary tale of Thomas Midgley..]

As we appear to be entering a new era of rapid scientific innovation in the 2020s, it is worth remembering that it often takes decades before the lasting social value of a technical innovation is understood — and decades more before we understand its downsides.

In the meantime, I’m pretty psyched about the cancer drugs…

As Thomas Kuhn observed, “The historian of science may be tempted to exclaim that when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them.”

On the difficulty of knowing the outcomes of a scientific revolution from within it: “Experiencing scientific revolutions: the 1660s and the 2020s,” from @ResObscura.

* Max Planck


As we try to see, we might spare a thought for William Seward Burroughs; he died on this date in 1898. And inventor who had worked in a bank, he invented the world’s first commercially viable recording adding machine and pioneered of its manufacture. The very successful company that he founded went on to become Unisys, which was instrumental in the development of computing… the implications of which we’re still discovering– and Burroughs surely never saw.

Nor, one reckons, did he imagine that his grandson, William Seward Burroughs II, would become the cultural figure that he did.


“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”*…


Robot-assisted farming

It’s easy to chuckle at the prognostications of yore– where’s my jet pack?!?  But as long-time readers will recall, there was one writer whose predictions were uncannily on the money:  Jules Verne.

His Paris in the 20th Century, for example, describes air conditioning, automobiles, the Internet, television, even electricity, and other modern conveniences very similar to their real world counterparts, developed years– in many cases, decades– later.   From the Earth to the Moon, apart from using a space gun instead of a rocket, is uncannily similar to the real Apollo Program: three astronauts are launched from the Florida peninsula– from “Tampa Town” ( only 130 miles from NASA’s Cape Canaveral)– and recovered through a splash landing.  And in other works, he predicted helicopters, submarines, projectors, jukeboxes, and the existence of underwater hydrothermal vents that were not invented/discovered until long after he wrote about them.

Verne’s writings caught the imagination of his countrymen.  As Singularity Hub reports,

Starting in 1899, a commercial artist named Jean-Marc Côté and other artists were hired by a toy or cigarette manufacturer to create a series of picture cards as inserts, according to Matt Noval who writes for the Smithsonian magazine. The images were to depict how life in France would look in a century’s time, no doubt heavily influenced by Verne’s writings. Sadly, they were never actually distributed. However, the only known set of cards to exist was discovered by Isaac Asimov, who wrote a book in 1986 called “Futuredays” in which he presented the illustrations with commentary…

In what some French people might consider an abomination, one illustration depicted the modern kitchen as a place of food science. While synthetic food in commercial products is sadly more common today than we’d like to admit (sorry Easy Cheese lovers, but I’m calling you out), the rise of molecular gastronomy in fine dining has made food chemistry a modern reality. It may seem like food science has its limitations, but one only needs to consider efforts to grow meat in a laboratory to see how far technology may go…

“Food Science”

See them all at “19th Century Artists Predicted the Future in This Series of Postcards.”

[A re-post, inspired by this piece in Upworthy.]

* Niels Bohr


As we console ourselves that, while the future may be another country, we may still speak the language, we might recall that it was on this date in 1888 that William Seward Burroughs of St. Louis, Missouri, received patents on four adding machine applications (No. 388,116-388,119), the first U.S. patents for a “Calculating-Machine” that the inventor would continue to improve and successfully market.  The American Arithmometer Corporation of St. Louis, later renamed The Burroughs Corporation, became– with IBM, Sperry, NCR, Honeywell, and others– a major force in the development of computers.  Burroughs also gifted the world his grandson, Beat icon William S. Burroughs.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 21, 2016 at 1:01 am

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