Everything has been invented, maybe

Sept. 16, 2004
The story is told often, but I'll tell it again.
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Khol editorials

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In the waning days of the 19th century, physicists were confident they understood everything there was to know about their field. They felt that essentially all discovery had been completed, and the only job remaining in physics was to refine measurements.

The story is archetypical of people who smugly think they have mastered their profession but really haven't. Also, the tale suggests that it is foolish to think scientific progress will ever stop. Conventional wisdom says that technological advances will be in store for us forever into the future.

I wonder. At the risk of appearing unenlightened, I have to confess that I feel like the 19th century physicists who thought that the discovery of new scientific principles was largely behind them. In my mind, it is entirely possible that mankind may actually have cataloged all the technology that human intellect is able to comprehend.

If you doubt that, let's try a bit of trend extrapolation. Go back 20 years and think about the new technology developed during that time span. Then we'll assume technology will continue to advance at the same pace. How much did technology advance during the span from 1984 to 2004?

Not a whole lot, insofar as I can see. Yes, there were substantial changes in computing and telecommunications. But even in these fields the progress isn't all that astounding in view of the fact we are talking about a span of two decades.

I will concede that desktop computers are amazingly powerful today, and the Internet and e-mail are marvels, along with global-positioning systems. Digital printing also represents a major technological advancement. What's more, I'm impressed with cell phones and how we can do our own processing of digital pictures.

However, the word processor I use today isn't much of an improvement over the one I used in 1984. The television sets I watch are basically the same as the ones I watched 20 years ago. (No, I don't have plasma TV.) Our washers, driers, and kitchen appliances are also essentially the same. The airplanes in which I travel aren't much different from the ones I rode in 1984, and the vehicles I drive today are pretty much clones of 1984 models.

When it comes to fossil fuels and electrical utilities, there actually has been regression. Thirty years ago we were on the verge of developing tar sands and shale as major sources of oil, but both government and industry have since deemed them to be " uneconomical." And almost every electrical-generation plant built in the U.S. in the last 10 years is powered by natural gas even though it already is in short supply. Worst of all, activists have largely shut down the domestic nuclear-power industry despite the fact that nuclear power is the most sensible way to generate electricity on a large scale.

Nanotechnology? For 30 years it has been called "promising." Nuclear fusion? Scientists have been pouring money down that rat hole for 50 years.

Materials science has seen some progress, but it has been limited. Metallurgists never delivered the superstrong alloys they were promising as long ago as the 1960s, and there are still no meaningful applications of ceramics as structural materials.

Finally, I don't foresee much progress in the automobile industry. Hybrid cars will never be anything but a maintenance headache. And as an inevitable result of the mania for low-cost manufacturing, cars in the next 20 years probably will be constructed even more cheaply than they are today. Some cars are already so complicated and fragile that they are virtually unrepairable even after minor fender benders.

Yet there is some reason for optimism. Almost every technological forecast ever made has turned out to be wrong. And there is no reason to believe that mine will be any better.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
Send feedback to MDeditor @ penton.com

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