Saturday, March 16, 2013
90 years of change
Aircraft with pressurized cabins: Cabins that can withstand internal air pressures of ten or more pounds per square inch (psi) enable passenger planes to fly at altitudes of ten miles above sea level. This ability to fly high over the earth, including mountain ranges, has enabled the air travel industry to proliferate. When I was born (1923) the best way to travel across this country was by rail. My aunt and uncle who lived in San Diego came to visit us in Michigan. They could take the train, which would take at least two days, or they could drive in a car, which would take about a week. Today the trip from Los Angeles to my birth village in Michigan requires about five hours in the air and an unpredictable time waiting in airports.
Television: Although the principles of television were known by 1923 it was not until some time in the 1940's that television receivers were available so that nearly everyone could have a set and watch events as they happened in remote locations.
Solid-state electronics: The invention of the transistor made possible such amenities as computers like the one I am using to type this article, not to mention cell phones, i-Pods, i-Pads, Nooks, and other conveniences. At one time in 1953 I traveled to Bell Telephone Laboratories in search of a job. I was taken to a group that was making and using transistors. I was shown a tray with about a hundred or so transistors. I believe that at the time I was looking at nearly entire inventory of transistors on the planet.
The laser: This remarkable device was invented while I was a graduate student. The first one was built by two graduate students at Columbia University, and they named it a MASER, for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission Radiation. Later devices were built that operated at shorter wave lengths, in the region of visible light. The light amplifiers were called Light Amplification, etc., or LASER. The invention of the laser is an example of a theorist predicting the possibility of a device simply from some equations. In this case it was Albert Einstein who looked at the equation for stimulated absorption of photons and pointed out that the equations also predicted the possibility of stimulated emission. A few years later the two graduate students tested Einstein's observation and, voila!
Nuclear Fission: The fact that certain heavy elements, particularly uranium and thorium, could be induced to fission (split nuclei) into lighter elements and release energy was discovered by two German physicists in the 1930's. A few years later American physicists and graduate students, led by Enrico Fermi, built and tested the first nuclear reactor, or atomic pile. One of my friends was present at the first test. One graduate student was holding an axe, ready to cut the rope that held neutron-absorbing shut-down devices up out of the pile. It was not known whether the process would be easy to control. In case of a run-away power excursion it was hoped that the axe would fall quickly enough to shut down the process before everyone was fried. It turned out that, because of the delayed neutron emitters, the process of control is very easy and does not require instant response to a small change in the power level.
Nuclear Fission Weapons: After Fermi and other physicists at the University of Chicago demonstrated that a controlled fission reactor could be used as a source of power, other physicists and nuclear engineers at the Los Alamos Laboratory worked on and finally succeeded in producing a rapid, uncontrolled reaction for use as a weapon. The resulting weapon was used in the war with Japan. Two ;Japanese cities were destroyed. The weapon has been used as a threat ever since even though it hasn't been used.. The design of a successful weapon is much more difficult to achieve than the design of a nuclear reactor. Fortunately, only a fairly small number of nations have developed nuclear weapon technology. Methods of making such weapons are jealously guarded secrets among the nations who possess the information. Some nations have aggressive programs to develop such knowledge.
Hybrid Automobile: The automobile can be depicted as a carriage propelled by an internal combustion engine. Engines for this and other purposes were developed in Germany during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The first company for producing autos was created by a German engineer named Benz. A few of the very first passenger cars made by the Benz firm are still in existence and can be driven. Herr Benz named his passenger car for a lady named Mercedes. I've heard several stories about her, alleging that she was his girl friend, mistress, wife, daughter, or niece. The cars are still made by the Daimler-Benz firm in Germany. The auto was an important invention which occurred before I was born. Because autos use a petroleum derivative as fuel and because they are so numerous, their existence has been partially responsible for the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the consequent warming of the surface of the earth. The hybrid car uses a combination of an internal combustion engine and an electric motor for propulsion. Simply put, the engine runs an electric generator that charges the battery, and the motor gets its electric power from the battery. The engine in a hybrid car does not need to have the power to achieve the sudden bursts of acceleration needed for cars to manoeuvre and get out of each other's way in traffic. Hence, a low power engine suffices for the car and such an engine burns less fuel than the engine of a regular car.
My readers (all six of them) may have other candidates for important inventions of the past ninety years. Feel free to list them in your comments. Now, in addition to inventions, I will list some changes in our thinking and our behavior from 1923 to the present.
Acceptance of Homosexuals: I knew nothing about homosexual men and women until I was a Junior at Michigan State College. (It has since changed its name to Michigan State University.) I went once with a friend to a bar or road house some distance from East Lansing. We didn't have money but we gained entrance by agreeing to wash the drinking glasses. The most difficult part of washing a glass is removing the lipstick left by the lady who last used the glass. My friend pointed out to me a man dressed rather oddly and explained that the man was "queer" or "homo." I don't recall that the word "gay" was in use then to denote such men. I was somewhat afraid and kept my distance from the man.
Years later my daughter, by then in her late 'teens, introduced me to a friend she had met among her co-counseling acquaintances. I co-counseled with this man and discovered that he was harmless and friendly. Later I met several "gay" men and lesbian women among my acquaintances in various Democratic political clubs. Knowledge displaced fear.
Female Priests: My first encounter with the Episcopal Church of the United States was in 1943 while I was a college student. I was interested in various varieties of the Christian faith and I happened to be taking a course in medieval history from a man who was also interested in the history of the medieval church. If he had a bias, it was pro-Anglican. I became interested in the history of the church and how the Anglican church, like the Lutheran, had kept most of the rites of the Roman Cattolic Church but had translated the liturgy from Latin into the language of the people, English or German. I became baptized as an Episcopalian in 1943, I think on October 28. A year later I was working in Washington, DC, and attending an Episcopal church there. I was confirmed by the Bishop of Washington, the Right Reverend Angus Dun. In those days, Episcopal priests, like Catholic priests, were men. The difference was that the Episcopal priests had wives and children. After a few years I lost interest in being an Episcopalian and left the church. I rejoined again in 2008, after the death of my wife. What a difference 60 years had made! One of the priests in the church I started attending was a woman. She was an acquaintance of my daughter, who had met her while she was working at an Episcopal church in Berkeley, California. Now the Episcopal Church not only has female priests, but homosexual priests and bishops. The revelation a few years ago that a bishop in New Hampshire was openly gay caused quite a stir all over the world. Anglicans in other parts of the world, particularly Africa, have to compete with other religious faiths, in particularly with Islam. Many Muslims of faith have not yet embraced the idea of gays and lesbians as people they can tolerate in the mosque.
It's Saturday morning. I haven't had breakfast and I'm running out of ideas. I may write more on this subject later. Until then, feel free to post comments.