Jewish World Review March 17, 2005 / 6 Adar II, 5765
This awards ceremony that recognizes inventions that truly make a difference in our lives
WASHINGTON, D.C. The National Science and Technology Medals
were handed out this week here in our nation's capital. The president
presided over a morning ceremony at the White House, and there was a classy
dinner in the evening, with the honorees present. I missed the morning
ceremony, for I remain after all these years technologically baffled. An
invitation was tendered to me, but it came in over the Internet as e-mail. I
missed it. The dinner invitation came through snail-mail, so I was there, in black
tie and with pen in hand to record the doings.
America has been riding a surge in scientific and technological
innovation for decades, and, if anything, the surge has grown broader. In
past decades, we read newspaper account after newspaper account of
miraculous innovations that were about to transform our lives. The stories
are not as popular today. We have become inured to the miraculous
innovations all around us. Moreover, some of the latest are so complicated
and portend such far-ranging change as to bewilder readers.
Consider the tiny computer chips that might be lodged in our
bodies someday, serving the same purpose larger chips now serve in our
automobiles. They will notify us when our cholesterol count or some enzyme
count signals danger. They will warn us that a knee is wearing out and in
need of replacement. Vital organs will be monitored by the tiny computers
and replaced in due course by new, improved vital organs. Conceivably, these
chips will keep us alive forever. As I say, the present surge in science and
technology is almost too much to bear.
At dinner the other night, whole teams of scientists and
engineers were recognized for ingenious inventions and procedures. So were
individuals. What attracts me to these awards is that unlike those for the
humanities, these are harder to fake. They are more dependent on objective
evidence. The consequence of each innovation is usually apparent. Politics
and lobbying is more difficult in science and technology than in belles
lettres or the plastic arts.
Yet, this is not always the case. One of the awardees is Bob
Metcalfe. He invented Ethernet, which was an early step toward the Internet.
Ethernet allowed local area computers to communicate. After that came the
vast worldwide communication system that is the Internet. Then came the
capacity to search and index documents on the Net that is Google. Metcalfe
tells an amusing story demonstrating that this week's awards are not
completely free of politics.
In 1973, he wrote the memo that invented Ethernet. Three years
later, he, with David Boggs, had the system up and running. Yet, his
practical application of the theoretical system he dreamed up in 1973
actually provoked not applause among his engineering colleagues but vexed
controversy. Their response to the functioning Ethernet was that it was
impossible. Their reason? It was impossible "in theory." As Ethernet's use
spread, there remained engineers who scoffed at it as a theoretical
impossibility. That reminds me of the old joke Ronald Reagan used to make at
the expense of economists. "Yes," they might say. A certain policy, say tax
cuts, works in practice. "But does it work in theory "
Tax cuts, incidentally, and the efficiency of American markets
explain the long period of vigorous economic growth that the country has
enjoyed since the early 1980s. Yet there is another element, one mentioned
by Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan frequently. That is the growth in
productivity stemming from the surge in scientific and technological
innovation that was celebrated this week with the National Science and
Technology Medals. The event brought together stars far more worthy of our
awe than any stars the world of entertainment might summon to dinner. I
actually got to meet Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, the men who took Metcalfe's
Ethernet and made it the Internet. I suspect the economic impact of these
three men has amounted to hundreds of billions of dollars. What is more,
there is no sign the innovations are ending.
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© 2001, Creators Syndicate