Science blurb

Question: Michael Faraday said that reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica articles on science sparked his decision to become a scientist. What has sparked your desire to follow a certain career path? Can you find parallels in the lives of these scientists with your life?

Like scientists, I have always had a passion for learning. Unfortunately, I am the discovery type learner and the classroom has never been the best place for me. I never did well in school but seem to have a reasonable knowledge base. I have spent a lot of time in discovery mode, building model airplanes and models as a child, a real airplane as a teen, working on cars, stereos, building a real racing car from scratch, and other discovery hobbies. I currently study sound and build speakers as a hobby. Unfortunately, my career developed on its own and has little to do with my interest in the sciences.

I think scientist fall into two categories, one group is the university type who thrives in the academic environment and can take years to carefully study and collect data. The second group are the passionate who have an idea and work it out on their own. I think most major discoveries and inventions were accomplished by this second group. While I do not have an idea to change the world, I fall into the second group. I learn best in the field.

What do you think is the most important invention to this date?

I have to say electricity. While there were other power sources, electricity allowed a single source to act upon a large array of applications. Electricity is easy to transport or produce on-site using lightweight equipment. The relative low cost of electricity brought power to the masses and drove industry to supply convenience goods for the average home. Electricity revolutionized homes with refrigerators, washing machines and communications. Electricity created the 24 day by providing light for factories and homes. Electricity increased food supplies by automating farming and transport. Electricity saves lives by speeding the scientific process. Electricity saved the environment by creating alternate and less polluting methods for heating and cooling homes. If I had to limit the key inventions or processes electricity powers, they would be: communications, refrigeration and light.

I know a number of people will list computers as a key invention. I would like to note that computers only speed what is done manually. There is nothing a computer does today that cannot be done manually a little slower. A computer's primary function is communication tool with secondary functions as storage device and then a simple calculator. I know it all seems so magic and cool, but it is a simple communication device.

This site supports my ascertained that electricity is the most important invention of all time. It is strange to see all these large devices to generate huge voltages. They look so 1950 and like they are made to impress the audience than to actually conduct science. Those pictures give us some idea what was driving all those 1950s horror movies. In contrast to this site, today we are focused on the micro-electric technology, computer chips and electron flow. And that is what plays our in our movies. I have three electric stories for those not bored to death yet:

Many years ago, I was privileged to visit one of the best museums in the world, The Deuches Museum of Science and Technology. They have everything and, at least in those days, the lawyers had not gotten hold of them so there were some great science demonstrations. They had things like real mining equipment under the museum, a live pour casting works where you could cast your own BMW cylinder head, and a huge Van de Graaf generator: We were brought into a huge room and some guy would yell "Achtung!" and hit the button. A bolt of lighting would streak across the room just about 10 feet from the audience (see what I mean about the lawyers now getting there yet). Then he would place an 8 foot square, one inch thick, glass between the two poles and Achtung! again. The lightning would hit the glass and surround it, going around the glass. Shows glass is not that great an insulator if there are enough volts. For the next experiment is, they selected someone from the audience and put them in a wire ball and place the wire ball between the poles. Achtung! And whammo, and the guy got fried. No wait! He was not touched. This was one demo you really held your ears.

In another life, I was hanging with my girl and her father had to run into work for a few minutes and asked if we wanted to join him. Turns out he was the Director of linear accelerator at the Lawrence Berkeley Energy Lab nad we got a tour. Pretty cool place, not geared for tours as it was a total mess. We wandered through the labs as he explained how the gathered a bunch of electrons at one end, got them all excited and then reversed the poles and they "flee down this tube". Then "just when they started to slow, we suprise them again to get them running". At the end of the accelerator, he had a plate the electrons would smash. The accelerators use magnets to keep the electrons in the center of the pipe. The professor showed us a couple of magnets which had lost their uniformity. There were huge gashes across the magnet and the cast housing was cut to pieces. This was 1000 pound castings sliced like butter. It looked like the main phaser banks from the Enterprise had scored a direct hit. Another cool thing was, as we walked around the building, there were taped notes (no post-it invented yet, another great invention) all over the place. They said things like "do not stand here for more than five seconds", "keep moving through this doorway", "don't go "over there" when the unit is on", "do not get pregnant within a week of walking past this door", and a lot of other scary things. Hmm, maybe this is why I am a little nuts and so are my kids.

Well, that girl married a good friend of mine and guess what, just like her dad, he was a nuclear physicist. This guy and I traveled to Europe together a couple of times. One time we are in Nimes in the south of France. We were roaming a Roman garden and it started to rain. We did not have a lot of time so we continued on the path and up a hill. We walked up a Roman guard tower up a very long spiral staircase. By the time we got to the top, lightning had moved in. Being the two geniuses we were, we sat there watching the lightning display while soaking wet. Suddenly, we both noticed there was a lot of static noise coming in real close. I noted I was leading up against a lightning rod and it was shooting sparks and making noise. I looked at Ralph and said something like "so you call yourself a scientist, eh" and we started for the staircase in a calm and orderly manner; screaming. As we got to the stairs, we noticed the lightning rod was strapped to the metal staircase and the stairs were the link to the ground. I guess I was not ready for a heart attack that day because I was sure pumping adrenaline. My ears were shot, not from lightning, but from the screaming as we ran down the tower. Those are my main electric stories, except the one where lightning actually knocked me over, but that one is boring.

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Copyright Peter Jay Smith 2005 Return to