Friday, April 10, 2015

American Should Know More About the History of Science and Technology

Last night the book club to which I belong discussed Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 by Nathaniel Philbrick. (I previously posted my thoughts on this book.)

A key point made in the book is that the Exploring Expedition (Ex. Ex.) marked an important point in the emergence of science and technology in the United States. As a direct result of the Ex. Ex., the Smithsonian Institution was instituted to do science and to house scientific collections. Such collections are critical to the development of descriptive sciences such as ethnology, zoology and botany.

Moreover, the the United States Botanical Garden, the United States Hydrographic Office and the Naval Observatory were all created as as a result of the Ex. Ex. For the Ex. Ex. the Congress accepted its role in funding scientific work, and it continued increasingly to so ever since. Philbrick states that while there had been men who did science in the United States before the Ex. Ex., it was only after the Exploring Expedition that it became possible for young men to plan a career as paid scientists.

So What?

Why is the Ex. Ex. not widely known by the American public, and why is it not taught in the schools? The question was asked in several forms by members of our club last night, but I think not fully answered.

The North American colonies of the European imperial powers were quite provincial. Some science was done, and some technology was advanced, but the English colonies were kept dependent on England. Since the Revolutionary War and independence, the United States has grown into the world leader in science and technology. For a while after World War II, at least half of the papers published in scientific and technological journals were produced by U.S. authors. The Ex. Ex. marked an important benchmark in the growth of American science and technology/

The American System of Manufacturing gave the United States a competitive advantage in international commerce, as well as in the manufacture of products for domestic markets. It was developed first in the government armories, starting in the 1820s -- about the same time that the idea for the Ex. Ex. was gaining steam.

Americans went to sea in significant numbers in the 19th century; the U.S. whaling industry was the largest in the world at the time, but there was also a China trade, and extensive coastal trade, and extensive river traffic. As Sea of Glory illuminates, the government assisted in the growth of this industry by charting the areas frequented by the ships. I suppose that the building of iron-clad ships in the Civil War also advanced ship building technology via government support.

Starting very early, the government created West Point to train military engineers. The Naval Academy was established in 1845. In 1862 the federal government passed the Morrill Act which made grants to federal land to create a national system of land grant colleges which were to advance -- among other things --agriculture, mechanical arts and military tactics. In 1887, the Hatch Act led to the creation of agricultural research stations in the land grant colleges and thus to agricultural extension services. This system was instrumental in making U.S. agriculture efficient and a major motor for national growth.

I could go on to identify government roles in the inventions of the telegraph, the electrical light and the supporting electrical infrastructure, automobiles, airplanes, radio, computers, the Internet etc.

One of the members pointed out during the meeting that Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction in England while the Ex. Ex. was conducting its explorations. The great American scientist, Joseph Henry, independently discovered electromagnetic induction at about the same time; Henry of course soon after became the first Secretary of the Smithsonian. Henry will be remembered as long as inductance is measured in a unit called the Henry in his honor. Similarly, some decades later, James Clark Maxwell (from the United Kingdom) clarified the relation between electricity and magnetism, and will be remembered as long as that relationship is described by Maxwell's equations. During our club meeting it was suggested that 1000 years from now, Henry and Maxwell may well be remembered, while people will not be sure exactly who Abraham Lincoln was or what he did.

Why is it that American schools don't teach about the U.S. Exploring Expedition as part of the general curriculum? Indeed, American schools don't teach the history of science and technology. A part of the answer may be a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in American life.

More Generally

Perhaps secondary school children should be prepared to pass the following essay exam to graduate:

  1. For most of the human race's time on earth, most people spent a large part of their time getting food, and since in spite of that hunger was common, famine not exceptional. What is the historical sequence of events that explains how it is that a few percent of Americans are able to produce enough food for the whole country, that there is enough food that no one need go hungry, and that famine is unknown in the USA?
  2. For most of that time, average life expectancy was much lower than it is today and the population was much smaller. Over history, many diseases have emerged into the human population. What is the historical sequence of events that explains how it is that life expectancy at birth in the United States is now so much longer than it was in the past?
  3. For most of that time, people didn't have many possessions; indeed, for a great deal of the race's time on earth people had so few possessions that they could carry them all with them. What is the historical sequence of events that explains how Americans have so many possessions -- homes, cars, clothing, and many other things?
  4. The human race today has more knowledge than ever before, indeed, by orders of magnitude more than it had even 500 or 1000 years in the past. Moreover, while mastery of that body of knowledge is widely distributed in a huge population, the average teenager in the USA has more access to knowledge through his/her smart phone than did the greatest monarch a century ago through his government. What is the historical sequence of events by which this situation came tp pass?
  5. People today are more able to do what they want than ever before -- on the average they can live more comfortably, move faster and over longer distances (and indeed leave the earth), communicate more quickly and easily over longer distances, overcome disabilities to a greater degree, and entertain themselves with a greater variety of alternatives of better quality. What were the historical sequences of events that so empowered people of today, as compared with those of the past?

1 comment:

John Daly said...

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson looks like a good text for teaching how we got to the Information Technology Revolution.