27 Feb 2019

Maybe the Modern World Is Not as Progressive As It Thinks It Is

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Boston, 1904.

Ol’ Remus points out that Progress has not been progressing in the modern era nearly as much as a lot of people think.

There has been a noticeable lull in theoretical physics for a long while now. Quantum physics today, for example, amounts to experiments and commentary on a theory formulated in the 1920s, a resounding theoretical and technological success but getting long in the tooth. Physicists have been mining it like the Comstock Lode for almost a century, with diminishing returns.

    Consider how little is really new. Television, the “modern marvel” that came of age in mid-twentieth century, depended crucially on the cathode ray tube, a device from the closing years of the eighteen hundreds, just another piece of lab equipment used by Victorian era nuclear researchers. Television was a parallel development of the electronic oscilloscope, first examples of which date to 1897.

    A NASA engineer estimated that all the technology needed to launch a satellite was in place by the 1920s. The Hubble telescope’s central feature is a reflecting telescope invented in the mid-1600s. Einstein’s theory of special relativity was published in 1905, general relativity came ten years later. The LIGO gravity wave detector is built around a Michelson interferometer, invented in 1887. Electromagnetic particle accelerators were well developed in the 1920s, a concept still in use. The circular cyclotron was invented in 1930 , it’s the basis of the CERN Large Hadron Collider. And on and on.

    Science has gone quiescent, and technology is getting drowsy. Consider. The first jet aircraft flew in 1939. Both the F-86 and MiG-15 of Korean War fame first flew in 1947. The Boeing 707 entered service in 1958, sixty one years ago, and it’s the dominant pattern for jet airliners to this day.

    Semiautomatic rifles were marketed to civilians in 1903. Mexico issued standard 7×57 semi auto rifles to the infantry in 1910. France issued the 8×50 RSC , another successful semi auto, in 1917. The AR-15 goes back to 1956. The .45 ACP round goes back to 1910, the 9×19 mm to 1902. The first electronic infrared detector-display was invented in 1929 for the British air defense system.

    Electronic analog computers were in use in 1939, some aboard US submarines. By 1941 they were programmable. The first digital electronic programmable computer was delivered to Bletchley Park in early 1944. The first transistor appeared in 1947. The marriage was as inevitable as in a 1940s two-hanky movie.

    Oldsmobile began selling automobiles in 1897. Electric cars, also first mass marketed in the US in 1897 , were common until the electric starter replaced hand cranking for gasoline powered cars in 1912 and decisively captured the women’s market. GE built its first diesel-electric locomotives in 1918. By the 1930s “diesels” were in general use as yard switchers, were replacing steam in passenger service and in main line heavy freight service beginning in 1939 .

    Telephones were in common use by the 1890s . Radio, in its “wireless telegraphy” form, was patented in 1896. AM radio was first demonstrated in 1906, by the 1920s it was a commercial success. Hollywood first screened color and sound-on-film movies commercially in the early 1920s. The first color television was demonstrated in 1928, the first all electronic color television in 1940. Even the current gee-whiz technological darling, the laser, was first demonstrated in 1960.

    We’ve been cannibalizing the past for six or seven decades, combining this ‘n that, or developing existing stuff to the nth degree and calling it good. Where are the real breakthroughs today? In physics we’re reduced to reading of parallel universes and wormholes and hidden dimensions and “the universe as hologram” on the basis of little more evidence than a competent science fiction writer could conjure from public sources. String theory, the serial Lazarus of theoretical physics, has produced little more than string theorists.

    You’ll notice physics began atrophying right about the time it became Big Science with grants and other government support.

HT: Vanderleun.

4 Feedbacks on "Maybe the Modern World Is Not as Progressive As It Thinks It Is"

bob sykes

That corner looks the same today.


As far as aviation is concerned, the science has matured as far as airframes are concerned. Now, the emphasis is on placing more and better sensors in them and networking them all.

But, still, there are things being developed in the labs now that will radically change the world. New, stronger materials will change the look of the future as everything gets lighter and slighter.

The most radical transformation will be the mass computerization and networking of everything. Humans will infect our world with intelligence. Things will think. Everything will be smart.

Along with that will be the enhancement of humans, perhaps with nanomachines we drink which keep us healthier and extend our abilities. We may be able to communicate by thought, moving things just by thinking it.

All of this will happen in America first, making us superhuman. The difference between we enhanced humans and ordinary humans will be as great as between humans and apes.

Our grandchildren will live in a radically different world than we do.

Joe Y

This begs the question about how much more there actually is to be discovered in physics; maybe the field has plateaued for the time being. Also, what about chemistry and, especially biology? What’s going on now in genetics is extraordinary, to take one example.

JK Brown

I often read economists, such as Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revution, comment on how we must renew our innovating to the level of the early 20th century. Of course, in the late 19th and early 20th century, we had a new source of energy (petroleum) and a new form of energy (electricity) coming on line. New methods of machining precision, methods of connecting parts (gas, then arc welding) were developed and deployed.

The discovery of the link between electricity and magnetism, the basis of our modern world, is just reaching its bicentennial. What followed was a century of rapid development, then a slowing.

But what new source of energy have we discovered to develop? What new form of energy is in the labs or the theoreticians scribblings waiting for some key linking discovery?

The PLC (Programmable Logic Controller), the basis of digital automation control, turned 50 in 2018 and 2019 is 50 years from its first deployment. Improvement and expansion of use, incrementalism, abound, some perhaps not welcome like the PLCs (and sensoring) know as ECUs in cars.

The first half of the 20th century was a inflection point in human history as far as transforming technology improving human lifespan and life. Unfortunately, many poorly conceived public policies were implemented on the false belief the transformation wouldn’t reach a plateau.


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