Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Burton Richter's Four Laws of Societal Inertia

      Burton Richter NSF crop.jpg    
Burton Richter (b. 1931)
 (Nobel Prize for Physics 1976)

I was reading Richter's recent book 'Beyond Smoke and Mirrors' about Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century when I came across his four laws relating to societal inertia.  I thought they are very well stated to understand why things are so difficult to change when they obviously need to be changed.

I reproduce the four laws in the following:

First Law:  The future is hard to predict because it has not happened yet.
Second Law:  No matter how good a solution is, some people will demand we wait for a better one.
Third Law:  Short term pain is a deterrent to action no matter how much good that action will do in the long run.
Fourth Law:  The largest subsidies go to technologies that deliver the most votes or campaign contributions.

I would like to add a further observation to these 
(corollary to the Fourth Law):

The rich and powerful prefer status quo and influence decisions made by administrators with scant knowledge of science and technology.

What I find interesting in these laws is that they are equally applicable to the way society might respond to the march of new technologies.  That the new technologies will benefit our civilization is far from certain and much will depend on how they are controlled and implemented.  

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Impact of Technologies on Our Civilization - What Does the Future Hold?

Technology:  the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes

We can trace the development of new technologies as in the figure below:
.
One of the features that distinguishes the 20th and 21st Century technologies from historic developments is miniaturization leading to nanotechnology (NT)
Scientific understanding of matter at the atomic level and the development of fast computers have created a knowledge-based society which has helped to improve the quality of life for the vast majority of the human race.  An average person now lives with more resources at his disposal than the aristocracy did 200 years ago!

Technology is a double edged sword: it has brought tremendous benefits to people but can also cause great harm.  Fire (energy) is great for sustaining our civilization but carries destructive power to burn down our homes and cities.  

What has been different in the past 50 years or so is the rate of new technological advancements.  The rapid rate of change has created stresses in human societies who are finding the ethical, moral, legal dilemmas difficult to manage.  The situation is bound to get much worse in the future.  How will we cope?  The future is uncertain with hopes and fears for the survival of the human race itself. It is not difficult to appreciate that any one of the new technologies - nano-, bio- or artificial intelligence -  is capable of destroying life if used improperly.  In any case, the impact of new technologies will be far reaching and how we manage the new knowledge will be of paramount importance.  Technological advances can not be reversed - knowledge can not be unlearned - and the way research is done now, it is no longer possible to stop further work in a field. 

In a series of blog entries, I plan to address these questions. For my course entitled Nanotechnology 2011 in Scotland, I had discussed many of the new technologies. In order to prepare the background for my blogs, I shall first publish the PowerPoint slides of the lectures here and then take on the subject of how technologies might develop into the future with the main emphasis on how the human societies could be affected by them - for better or for worse. Unfortunately, the slides do not convey the full details of the lectures but are a good reference point for further discussion. (Click on the talk number to view the slides)

Talk 1:  The Big Science of the Extremely Tiny
Talk 2: Seeing Nano Objects  - Microscopy
Talk 3: Making Nano Structures
Talk 4: Nature's Nanotechnology
Talk 5: The Digital Revolution
Talk 6: Nanomedicine
Talk 7: The story of Carbon  

Most material in the slides is available in the public domain.  For a few of the slides, where I have not been able to acknowledge the source individually, I make a general statement of acknowledgement.

Nanotechnology for All - Seeing Nano Objects - Microscopy (Talk 2)

I want to look at the methods for studying nano objects - an essential part of the process before we can use nanotechnology for manufacturing useful devices.  How microscopy has developed over the past centuries is a fascinating example of paradigm shift.  New physics principles have made possible studies of ever smaller structures; now we can observe individual atoms in molecules - a truly marvelous achievement.
(Please click on the slide to view its bigger image)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Nanotechnology for All - Making Nano-structures (Talk 3)

How does one make nano-structures  - useful nano-devices.  Nature has been doing it for billions of years; we humans have just started to think about it.  Obviously, we shall learn from what is already there and get inspirations from nature's way of doing things.  But let us look at the general picture:
(Please click on a slide to view its bigger image)
 
 
 
It is obvious that our manufacturing top-down methods are wasteful and inefficient.  We have a lot to learn from nature's way doing nanotechnology.  As it happens, without realizing it, chemists have been using nanotechnology to produce new chemicals etc.