Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Glory of Science

I suppose there must have been a moment in the post-war world in which the thermionic valve was King when a scientist playing with silicon crystals caught a glimpse of the future. Airships powered by silicon engines, perhaps, or wrist-televisions with silicon crystal screens. I doubt that anyone would have predicted that when paired with the transistor these silicon chips would become so ubiquitous as to be found even in posh birthday cards. My first wireless as a boy was a Phillips with clunky piano-key buttons and a proper tiller-wheel tuner with little ropes behind the illuminated spectrum dial; the joy was watching the half-dozen valves warm up, glow orange and then produce the most gloriously mellow and warm tones from the small 4W speaker. Quality of sound apart, the job can now be done by something the size of a shirt stud.

The Indie's lead piece on Graphene today must echo the wildest of the speculations about Silicon in the early days. We know that the eventual applications will be miles removed from those we imagine, and that it may need a second, complementary development to realise the material's potential. Yet this story remains a small beacon of light in the November gloom - the glory of pure science, open, transparent, friendly as a Labrador and filled with hope. If there is a positive reason for thanksgiving today, this is it. 

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's Anon-the-defender-of-low-corporate-taxes here, Raedwald - come for my daily read. Good morning to you!

Just wanted to say how very much I agree with your sentiment and thoughts this morning. The human thirst and capacity for knowledge for its own sake, and its ability to find synergies in disparate disciplines, will yet be the saviour of us all.

Even those who want to bounce us back to a 10th century of ignorance, savagery and superstition.

Ed P said...

Silicon please - the element - for electronics and silicone (gunk) for breat implants.

Raedwald said...

Ed, and Andy Dwelly - thanks. Corrected.

G. Tingey said...

Spot on!
Just keep the politicians AWAY - except, for seed-corn funding.
In a thankful reversal of the madwoman's policies, f'rinstance a small amount of dosh is being supplied to "Reaction Engines" who hope to have single-stage-to-orbit @ less than 1/10th of the present costs - & yes, they are working with graphenes & carbon-fibre composites.
Or the Skunk Works announcement, recently, that they really think that "fusion in 10 years" is possible - as opposed to being 30 years way - permanently.
Advances in the science &underlying the technology behind efficient artificial photosynthesis & electrical energy-storage are also in the pipeline, I'm glad to say.
The other really amazing breakthrough came with the use of stem cells to regenerate damaged/destroyed spinal nerve tissue - if further trials prove successful, then not only will it be a certain Nobel Prize for the researcher(s), but an end to horrendous amounts of pain, suffering & misery.

Visc said...

How depressing that this is a possible single point of light in the corporate mangerialist monolith that pretends it is science these days.

Gordon the Fence Post Tortoise said...

Spoiler - Yes and no ...

Graphene when tested and measured in *very* small highly controlled environments can do magical stuff. Transferring this into practical and specifically durable applications is presently defeating just about everybody..

Anybody familiar with the topic would be way more enthusiastic about *any* new technique for stabilizing a one molecule thick film of the stuff so's it's presently unique properties can be exploited on anything but a microscopic and temporary basis. Trying to tow a car with a single strand of wet toilet paper comes to mind.

That said it is amazing stuff and there's likely more to come but I strongly suspect that macro applications are years away.

Raedwald said...

Gordon - Thanks; as I thought. It's like the guys fiddling with Silicon in the '50s and early '60s.

Budgie said...

G Tingey, no UK government has funded a UK launcher program since the demise of Black Arrow, which program was cut by Wilson and not reinstated by Heath. The program was anyway on a shoestring using already available personnel and missile technology.

HOTOL, the predecessor to Reaction Engines, failed because of technology problems and lack of funding, not least by Rolls Royce. It also got caught up in wrangles with the EU and the French. In the end UK space funding went to develop Arianne 5 rather than HOTOL.

Despite your paranoia about Mrs Thatcher I doubt if she had anything significant to do with the decisions taken. In any case she did nothing different to any other UK government for the last 45 years.

TrT said...

Doing it once is science
Past that its 'just engineering'

*ducks*

Anonymous said...

It'll never take off. After all, it has 'carbon' as its basis thereofre it will be taxed into oblivion as a potential threat to mankind

Ian Hills said...

All this new technology will just make the Terminators seem human, after SkyNet goes live.

Gordon the Fence Post Tortoise said...

TrT

I'm way past fed up with the BBC in particular making out that engineers are scientists and vice versa...

The truth lies somewhere in the middle - unless you'r a particular breed of climate "scientist" or one of the breed of academic frauds that thinks sociology is a science.... or um... write for the Guardian :-)

Anonymous said...

I know a couple of definitions of an engineer:
An engineer is someone who can do for a shilling what anyone else can do for a pound
or
A scientist is someone who can prove why what an engineer has been doing for years works.

Anonymous said...

We're just about to hit the Shannon limit (distance/capacity)in optical communications using existing silicon. Graphene could help take us further.

G. Tingey said...

Budgie
You are correct in spreading the blame ( I always forget) but "she" took great public delight in the final cancellation & resolutely refused to spend any money on "space" at all, thereafter....

TrT
Yes & no ...
"Development" which is process from bench-top lab-demonstrator to a fully working-size industrial plant involves both science & engineering & the further you go down that route the more "pure" engineering you get.

Yes, graphenes are tricky, but so were carbon-fibre composites & silicon-based technologies TO START WITH.
The first transistor was 1947 ...
They didn't enter serious production, even as individual components, until about 1953/4 ( Production quality-control was a real nightmare) & the first "IC" was 1958 ... so there's "a way to go" - but it is there & things will happen & no, we can't really predict what will happen.

Budgie said...

G Tingey I am perplexed.

"Spreading the blame" - Just a quibble: not funding a UK launcher was government policy since the 1960s Wilson regime. You, and I, might disagree with that policy but "blame" is too one sided a word.

"She took great public delight in ....." Can you provide evidence of that? I'm genuinely interested.

"... final cancellation" Final cancellation of what? There was no extant UK launcher in the 1980s to cancel.

"Refused to spend any money on space at all" Not so. UK money went to the European Space Agency for the Ariane launcher. The UK joined in 1978, is still a member, and contributes 9.6%.

G. Tingey said...

Wrong period
She was minister for Science & Education under grocer Heath, which was when it was all finally destroyed.
And she took great public joy in doing so, at the time ... which is why I was horrified when she became troy leader, then PM, as I knew what was coming .......

b said...

Errm, the Launcher program was cancelled by Wilson - you know the guy that cancelled lots of other technology things like the P1154 and TSR2. It staggered on into Heath's government, and as I already said was "not reinstated by Heath". As I also said I would like evidence that Thatcher "took great public delight ..." about Wilson's cancellation.

Budgie said...

B for Budgie