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An age of revolutionary concepts, made practical

From the chalkboards of scientists, theory takes shape in the form of satellites and microchips.

By Robert C. Cowen Special to The Christian Science Monitor / November 25, 1998


Nov. 24 - Clifford Will knows what it takes to put across abstruse science: a challenge. Facing a group of easily bored science writers, the articulate physicist from Washington University in St. Louis dared to prove that he could demonstrate why general relativity is important in our daily lives.

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"OK," we thought, "show us." What could be more irrelevant to most people than Einstein's arcane theory of gravity as a warping of time and space?

But as Dr. Will was quick to point out, if the United States Air Force didn't take strict account of that theory in running the Global Positioning (navigation) System (GPS), the lives of air travelers, the security of nations, and to some extent the flow of world commerce would be at risk.

He summed up his talk by saying, "to know there is a practical use of relativity theory is music to my ears."

Practical use of revolutionary concepts - that idea is the hallmark of science and engineering that have shaped so much of our century's character.

This thought force (as it might be called) of creative scientists and engineers has propelled discoveries that changed forever our concept of the universe. It led to technologies that changed - mostly for the good - the lives of people everywhere.

Thoughtlessly or deliberately misused, however, these discoveries brought tragedy. They also magnified human impact on the environment to such a degree that we now are forced to take charge of our planet's well being. We can no longer leave it to the natural processes that, until this century, maintained a livable environment.

The late Karl Compton - a chairman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. - foresaw these trends in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor nearly 50 years ago. He noted then that the sciences have brought mankind within reach of prizes richer than it ever dared dream. But these are matched by the awful consequences of social failure. The prizes, he said, will go to those who can answer the challenge of today, and that challenge is a spiritual one.

Dr. Compton explained that, in his view, the 20th century will not be known as the age of the atom. Instead, it will be known as the age when the kinship of people and the desire to provide a higher standard of living for all first emerged as a worldwide ideal. This has emerged because of modern communications, rapid transportation, and the interdependence of resources.

"It is a fact that puts a heavy responsibility on the morality and character of everyone," he said. Compton then added a mid-century insight that is relevant to a world on the brink of a new century: "Whatever may be the scientific facts of immortality, still unknown, one thing is certain - every person is immortal in the sense that his influence continues forever, in the form of his achievements and the effects of his ideas and attitudes."

Certainly, that has been true of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. Few outside the physics community knew how far Newton's famous mechanics had fallen from grace as this century opened. It was bad enough that, by the mid-19th century, physicists had learned that Newton's dynamics of particles and forces didn't jibe with Clark Maxwell's laws of electrodynamics. Now it couldn't cope with discoveries about the behavior of atoms and the emission and absorption of light. It couldn't even calculate the orbit of the planet Mercury.