Sunday, April 24, 2005

Civilization and its Contents - III

So where does our American civilization lie? Well, the obvious answer is in the technology that we have discovered and perfected. A lot of people will wonder if the trade off between all the good things we have found and nuclear weapons has been worth it. [There will always be someone to point out that the Germans or the Russians would have discovered them in any case. I am not so sure. (Read Richard Rhodes the Making of the Atomic Bomb).] In any case, America has certainly been on the forefront of technological advance in almost all fields. While many of the physicists on the Manhattan Project were from foreign countries (Fermi, etc.), and, of course, Einstein was also, others such as J. Robert Oppenheimer were home grown. Because of the devastation of WWII, physics outside the United States took years to recover. While Japan and Europe are now contributing, in my mind the US still leads in many areas. Unfortunately, physics hasn't brought us any useful goodies for a long time. While they probe subatomic particles and meander through 12 dimension string space, our world is in deep trouble.

Chemistry used to be the provence of the Germans. In fact, in the 50's and 60's US chemistry graduate students had to learn German. That has changed, but all that original work is still there.

It is in the Medical field that the US has appeared to excel. Most of the major advances both theoretically and practically have originated here. While this has been a boon for some few patients, the overall health of the planet has decayed dramatically. What good does an MRI do when millions of children die every year from diarrheal diseases that are both preventable and easily treatable? One could go on for a long time on the problems with US Medicine. But, the fact remains, from the polio vaccine to the human genome, we have excelled intellectually. If one is going to list our contributions to civilization, this may have to be near the top.

While many other areas in science and engineering have had their stars, for instance Henry Ford bringing an affordable automobile to the masses, it is possible that these advances would have been discovered in due time elsewhere. One can only speculate where Europe would have gone if it had not had WWI and WWII.

High on the list of inventions that have changed the way we live must, regrettably, be Television. Again, one could wax long and vigorous on this subject. And maybe even include personal computers and the InterNet. I am going to think about this for a bit.

To be continued.....

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