Saturday, August 20, 2016

Science in the City

Approaching New York City by automobile, bus, train, or aircraft we are struck with the architectural engineering technology applied in the city’s physical construction. Most visitors are impacted by the aesthetic grandeur of the skyline. Soon they experience a close-up immersion into the city. An abundance of additional sensations surround the tourist—close-up sights, sounds, olfactory, and gustatory delights. Modern science enhances the visitor’s experience at every turn.

In our previous post we compared the city of ancient Rome with modern New York City. Architectural and structural technology were used by the ancients to a remarkable degree. The Colosseum and Pantheon were marvels of engineering for their time. Contemporary travels to NYC, however, reveal a very different set of experiences in city life. Our modern experience would have been startling for the Romans were it possible to transport Roman residents to modern times.

The city experience of the 21st century has its foundation in startling events of the past four centuries. The beginnings of the scientific revolution were marked by a revised approach to the investigation of natural phenomena. It was an epistemological revolution resulting in revision of beliefs and practices. We have previously discussed the agricultural, industrial, and sanitary revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. These supplied impetus for the remarkable world population explosion from one billion to over seven billion souls in the past 200 years. At the risk of oversimplifying complex scientific history, we mention but two startling discoveries and innovations: the theory of electromagnetism championed by James Clerk Maxwell in the latter half of the 19th century and the digital revolution of the 20th century.

In looking back at the history of humanity, we may have trouble visualizing how cities such as ancient Rome could manage their affairs without knowing the nature of the electromagnetic spectrum, much less applying its potential for the enrichment of their lives. In our time waves of electromagnetic energy enable hundreds of types of communications at the speed of light. Cities of the modern world would be unable to function without man-generated radio, television, radar, microwaves, and countless other electromagnetic frequencies operating at thousands of different wavelengths. Our ability to use and generate these waves powers our modern way of life. Seldom do we contemplate life in the city just after our country was born or life in ancient Rome. Communication was by unamplified voice, gestures at a distance, and written and oral messages borne by painfully slow messengers.

The purpose of communication is transfer of information. Since mid-20th century we have entered the Digital Age, also known as the Information Age. Virtually unlimited information can be accessed quickly, applied, and stored. The Digital Age we entered in mid-20th century was powered by recent computer technology. It has blended with knowledge of the electromagnetic spectrum first understood in the 19th century. Our culture benefits significantly as we apply our newfound knowledge.

We are concerned about the obsession with cell phone technology. As we navigated the streets of New York City recently, we noticed many residents were speaking on or manipulating their iPhones or cell phones as they walked along the streets. This may be characterized as overload—immersion in a surfeit of information, much of it unnecessary. We understand the meaning of Marshall McCluhan’s famous phrase, “The medium is the message.”

Advanced iPhones provide audible phone communication, texting, media such as television and radio, email, internet, and even our personal banking statements, creating constant multitasking potential at the tip of our fingers. These devices are ubiquitous as we sit in a waiting room, ride the subway, or walk down the street. Personally, I initially welcomed the potential to be in instant communication with my wife or other family members at a moment’s notice almost anywhere on the planet. On the negative side, however, traditional social interactions have been supplanted by interactions with this digital medium.

The “miracle” of our use of cell phone technology developed in the last few decades may have suppressed our appreciation of how it works. In my personal teaching experience decades ago I enjoyed creating student wonder at the reality of invisible electromagnetic waves passing through our classroom and our bodies every moment. At that time I used radio and television waves as object lessons: Their portable radios or TV receivers could prove the reality of their teacher’s claim. In the 21st century my classroom object lesson could include trillions of additional electromagnetic waves pulsing through our bodies. One iPhone call would demonstrate the truth of their teacher’s assertion. Beyond understanding the modern iPhone’s functional capabilities, we wonder if we could generate enough student interest in how the iPhone actually works as well as how it works for us!

We leave this question with our readers: Does our culture’s success with the wonders of science point to the genius of the Creator of all physical phenomena such as the electromagnetic spectrum and its relevance to the Digital Age? Or does our culture’s scientific success signal only the human genius of scientists? Our blog seeks to establish the superiority of the the genius of the God of Creation.