Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, who discovered of pulsars as a graduate student.
Photo: Roger Hayworth. Source: Wikimedia
I was fortunate enough to meet several when I was in high school. Our chemistry teacher organized an outing to a local college, where a Nobel laureate in Physics and three other great minds – one was the laureate’s PhD advisor – were giving a public seminar. After the Q&A session, I was able to meet one of the speakers one-on-one and exchange a few words with him.
Maybe it was my impressionable teenage mind, but to say that I was star-struck would be an understatement. This man had led the theoretical physics division on the Manhattan Project years earlier. He had won multiple awards, had mentored a Nobel Laureate, and would have won a Nobel himself had he been more confident of his math. And he and his colleagues had just explained quantum physics in terms that easily-distracted high school students could follow.
But their ground-breaking discoveries are commonplace textbook examples now. The work that great minds labor so intensively to uncover becomes the foundation for later research. The former discoveries aren’t lost, they’re used to make the next earth-shaking advance. That’s why science – and the economy – moves forward. It’s not because there’s some romantic “life force” pushing things forward, or because of destiny or chance. It’s because we allow some ideas to fail and others to succeed, on their merits. These advances become the basis for new technology and, eventually, improvements in productivity.
Portable computer from 1982 next to an iPhone. Photo: Casey Fleser. Source: Wikipedia
Our technology isn’t going backwards; we aren’t going to use the old 8086 chips from 30 years ago for anything other than museum displays. Apple’s A12 chip, used in their new iPhone, contains 6.9 billion transistors, one chip holding the equivalent of 345,000 of the old IBM PCs.
These advances should both encourage and humble us. Our science and technology have improved dramatically over the decades. Our human nature hasn’t.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
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