We Truly Live in an Age of Wonders

This morning I walked into my office and said, “Alexa, turn on the lights.”

And lo, there was light.

When I first took a programming class in college, waiting 24 hours for decks of punch cards to be returned seemed perfectly normal. When I first programmed an HP-85 for work a few years later, interactively debugging and testing, that seemed perfectly normal. When I peered at grainy photos slowly materializing underneath liquid developer, I felt like I’d learned some arcane form of magic. Now, I edit highly detailed images in Photoshop or Lightroom, and I feel like… well, you get the picture.

The pesky problem about the future is that it’s always changing. The future I envisioned when I graduated from high school is not the present I’m experiencing today, for good or ill. We don’t have lunar colonies, but we have instantaneous access to almost all information. We don’t have flying cars, but we’ll soon have self-driving cars. We don’t have humanoid robots acting as mechanical servants, but we have a host of small devices which ease our lives.

As technology becomes more pervasive, a kind of ennui, even cynicism, has set in. Technology no longer seems wondrous, but ponderous. Technology doesn’t solve problems, just create new ones. Technology makes the world a darker place, and doesn’t improve the human condition. I think part of the problem is the disconnect between the tech we use, and our understanding of the fundamental science underlying technology.

As with any tool, tech isn’t evil, nor is it good. The real problem is that technology today is both too simple and too complex. It’s simple, because it’s easier to use than ever, be it web browsers, smartphones, electric cars, or whatever. However, the tech underlying these simple devices is deeply complex, requiring the brainpower of thousands of engineers building on the work of decades of scientific research.

That’s why fundamental science education, mixed with a little engineering and critical thinking, needs to be emphasized more than ever. Science education also needs to be relatable.

Cycling for Science
Cycling for Science

Last year, my oldest daughter, Elizabeth, trekked across the US by bicycle with her friend, Rachel Woods-Robinson. Both graduated with UCLA physics degrees, and both have an abiding love for passing on what they know. They incorporated a little science education in the trip, stopping at schools and summer camps along the way to teach a little science. The lessons included assembling and testing small, 3D-printed, solar-powered bicycles, called Sol Cycles. The kids they encountered differed dramatically in attitude and temperament , depending on school and economic class. However, seeing the solar-powered Sol Cycles generated a lot of interest, and two engaging young scientists on a bicycle adventure didn’t hurt.

My friend and colleague, Scott Gardner, also has a daughter name Rachel, who directs her high school’s competitive robotics program. The kids who participate learn a little mechanical engineering, some programming, a bit of electrical engineering, and practical tool use along the way.

People use tech every day; relating the science we teach in school to the tech we use would go a long way to making primary and secondary science curricula more accessible and exciting. Note that this doesn’t have to be about computer tech. You’ll find all aspects of life now embeds tech in some form, be it cars, medicine, construction, art, and more. Relating how pure science begets applied science, which then turns into invention and engineering, could energize interest in science.

After all, the future needs to be invented by someone. And the more, the merrier.


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