May 01, 2003

When Did You Say We Are Living?

Chad Orzel realizes that he is living in the future, in an era in which undergraduates routinely make batches of high-temperature superconductors as laboratory exercises:

Uncertain Principles: I was teaching a lab today, watching a one and a half dozen pre-meds using spring-loaded projectile launchers to fire steel ball bearings around the room, when I noticed a Chemistry professor ducking into the stockroom at the back of the classroom. I wandered over to see what he was after, and found him pawing through the shelves of E&M demo gear with another of the physics faculty.

"What're you looking for?" I asked, as if I have any idea where things are in the stockroom after only two years here.

"I've got some students cooking up a batch of high-Tc superconductor in lab, and I just realized we don't have any of those neodymium magnets to levitate. Do you guys have any we can borrow?"

Every now and then, I get smacked in the head with the fact that, flying cars or no, we're living in the future. I remember when this stuff first burst on the scene, and won a Nobel Prize. Now it's an undergraduate lab.

The problem is that we are also living in the past: half a billion people who by-and-large might as well be living in the eighteenth century. The future is not evenly distributed around the globe. Neither is the present.

Posted by DeLong at May 1, 2003 10:13 PM | TrackBack


Actually, the high temp superconductors are very easy to make in small quantities. Senior undergrads in my Physics dept (I was first year undergrad at the time) were making them a year after they were first discovered, and an enterprising high school physics teacher made some with his class in my home town the next year (the high school students made the newspapers for it - to the disgust of some of the abovementioned undergrads who didn't think it was that big a deal).

Just because it's hard to figure out what something does, or why, does not mean that it is hard to make.


Posted by: Sean on May 1, 2003 10:32 PM

Duh. The new info always filters down to lower levels of education. In the 50s computer usage was only studied by college students. Now it is down to the grade school level. In biology, DNA and molecular biology techniques have moved into high schools. Science and technology seem to move rapidly from the collegiate level to K-12. That is not surprising.

Why is it that transfer of economic knowledge from college to K-12 does not occur as rapidly? or does it?

Posted by: bakho on May 2, 2003 07:17 AM

Yes, you could probably take someone from the stone age and train them to be DNA laboratory technicians in one generation. It's the social issues of technology that are harder to deal with.

Posted by: nkirsch on May 2, 2003 07:17 AM

Duh. Maybe because economics isn't a "real" science.

Posted by: Brian in NYC on May 2, 2003 07:33 AM

Are these half-billion people living the eighteenth century in a political sense, or economic sense, or both? It seems to me that you can't separate the political from the economic. An eighteenth century political and economic system could probably be characterized as one with a small, well-educated, wealthy elite, a weak middle class and a large, uneducated, impoverished lower class. Just counting a country like India in this category would boost the number of people living in the 18th century.

Posted by: Mark on May 2, 2003 09:07 AM

any baby is a stone age individual.


Posted by: Antoni Jaume on May 2, 2003 10:41 AM

On the other hand, in the eighteenth century, there were a lot of people who might as well have been living in the thirteenth century. The present and future have always been unevenly distributed, and barring a repeal of the Law of Conservation of Energy, they will probably remain so.

That said, I agree that it's a tragedy that, while my colleagues brew up superconducting ceramics for kicks, there are people in the Third World without clean water to drink. It's simply appalling that anyone should die of cholera or dysentary, or any of a handful of other diseases easily prevented by relatively low-cost means, and Something Ought to be Done.

In the meantime, though, not making superconductors isn't going to prevent any deaths, or raise the peasant standard of living in Lower Freedonia. And you've got to admit, DIY superconductors are pretty cool...

Posted by: Chad Orzel on May 2, 2003 11:22 AM

Yes. DIY high temperature superconductors are highly cool. In fact, any macroscopic manifestations of QM are highly cool. I am still transfixed by the rainbow diffraction patterns on the back of my CDs... the multiverse splitting into myriads and then recombining as the information about where the photons went is destroyed...

Posted by: Brad Delong on May 2, 2003 11:55 AM

Mr DeLong, there is no need to go to QM for CD diffraction patterns, but yes for photoelectric detectors, like digital cameras, or then we have to speak of everything around us as QM effects. Beginning by our physical consistence: chemical bonds are strict QM, Classical Mechanics can't explain them.


Posted by: Antoni Jaume on May 2, 2003 01:42 PM

I can't see chemical bonds (OK, I can see them break)...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on May 2, 2003 02:41 PM

A colleague I talked to at a conference in France insisted that green laser pointers are just the coolest gadget ever-- quantum optics in the palm of your hand. They're sort of irreducibly quantum, and the nonlinear optics element is Very Cool Indeed (they work by taking a very small infrared laser, and doubling the frequency to get green light). It's Quantum Optics in the palm of your hand...

Posted by: Chad Orzel on May 2, 2003 04:57 PM

"...there are people in the Third World without clean water to drink. It's simply appalling that anyone should die of cholera or dysentary, or any of a handful of other diseases easily prevented by relatively low-cost means, and Something Ought to be Done."

Is this some sort of hint that the capitalist West is somehow responsible for this sad state of affairs? These people are suffering due to two major reasons: their own inferior cultural values and the radical socialist nonsense embraced by many of their their leaders.

The very fact that the United States sent John Kenneth Galbriath to India as our ambassador is a sad chapter in that nation's history. Can anyone imagine the inadvertent destruction caused by this
man? This well meaning socialist economist is probably indirectly reponsible for the deaths of millions of people.

Posted by: David Thomson on May 3, 2003 02:16 PM

David Thomson

Views you repeatedly express show a truly astounding prejudice. What a sorry soul you are.

Posted by: arthur on May 3, 2003 03:25 PM

Surely the hatred of other peoples shown over and over by DT is more than sad.

Posted by: randall on May 3, 2003 03:28 PM

"David Thomson

Views you repeatedly express show a truly astounding prejudice. What a sorry soul you are."

I speak only the truth. The well meaning socialist, John Kenneth Galbraith, did enormous damage. He encouraged the leaders of India to embrace goofy economic policies--and this inevitably lead to the deaths of perhaps millions of people. Alas, good intentions are not sufficient.

Posted by: David Thomson on May 4, 2003 12:02 AM

Ah, but I'm sure that if only David Thomson had been sent to India in Galbraith's place, no-one in India would now lack for clean water.

Posted by: Canadian Reader on May 4, 2003 09:04 PM
Post a comment