Inventing Modern: Growing Up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins

By John H. Lienhard | Go to book overview

2
Short-Lived Technologies:
Searching for Direction

Late-twentieth-century mathematics finally confirmed something we had always known in our bones—that no human future can ever be predicted. Insofar as we can cast the prediction of even modestly complex futures in mathematical terms, the outcome is hopelessly dependent upon specifying the present with perfect accuracy. And that, it turns out, is always impossible to do.

Think, for example, about pouring cream into tea—how the cream quickly spreads and diffuses in increasingly complicated patterns. Suppose we wanted to reproduce one such pattern. We might find a large glass tank, fill it with tea (or just water), and wait until the tea seems absolutely still. Then we might clamp a pipette filled with cream above the tank. Next, we might release one-tenth of a cubic centimeter of cream from a height of three centimeters and photograph the resulting pattern as soon as one second after impact. When that's done, we replace the tea and repeat the experiment as precisely as we can. Finally, we compare the two photos.

We find that the two patterns of the cream diffusing into tea are quite different. Even if we could write the terribly complex, time-dependent equations for the fluid motion, miniscule changes in our descriptions of the two drops hitting the surface could cause the two calculations of the diffusion to start diverging almost immediately. The size of the two drops will always differ slightly (even if only on the microscopic level). The speed of impact of the two drops hitting the water can never be precisely the same. And each droplet will suffer a slightly different distortion as it falls. Those differences can all be made tiny, but the resulting effect on the two patterns will not be tiny at all. If we wait five or ten seconds instead of one, we will see almost no relation between the two resulting patterns.

-21-

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Inventing Modern: Growing Up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Preface vii
  • Inventing Modern xi
  • 1 - 1846: Great-Grandpa and Manifest Destiny 1
  • 2 - Short-Lived Technologies: Searching for Direction 21
  • 3 - “the Irruption of Forces Totally New” 39
  • 4 - A New Genus of Genius 53
  • 5 - Remington to Modern: Finding the Core on the Fringe 64
  • 6 - Fires and the High-Rise Phoenix 84
  • 7 - The Titan City 101
  • 8 - Automobile 115
  • 9 - On the Road: of Highways and Gasoline 137
  • 10 - The Back Door into the Sky 152
  • 11 - Flying Down to Rio 172
  • 12 - A Boy's Life in the New Century 190
  • 13 - Inventing a Better Mousetrap 204
  • 14 - War 219
  • 15 - A Funeral in the Fifties 244
  • 16 - After Modern 258
  • Notes 269
  • Index 285
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