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Promise of the Technology Center : San Jose Facility to Explain Computers, Jets, Space Travel

June 14, 1985|JOHN DREYFUSS | Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE — Technology has given us computers, jumbo jets, men on the moon, cars that talk, nuclear warheads--and the Technology Center here, which is going to explain all those things.

What's more, when this unique museum and education center opens in the fall of 1988, it's going to explain technology complete with warts: the misses as well as the hits, the failures that led to successes.

Displays at the center will delve into myriad facets of technology: fundamentals that make it work, imperfect ends it reaches, fantasies it strives to achieve, entrepreneurship--without which the scientific discoveries that technology depends upon would slide into the oblivion of textbook pages and never reach the marketplace.

The Foundation of Technology

Science is the foundation of technology. On that foundation, pile such building blocks as economics, engineering, personal ambition, marketing, production deadlines, logistics, competition, ethics, moods, luck, intra-company rivalries and having the right secretary . . . and you get something close to technology.

Technology is one of those words that successfully defies description. The dictionary can't do the job, any more than it can define religion or love.

"It makes no sense to me to separate science from technology, technology from ethics or ethics from religion," wrote physicist Freeman Dyson in his book, "Disturbing the Universe."

What can the Technology Center do about all those diverse building blocks--and scores more--stacked on the foundation of science to create the center's raison d'etre?

"I don't know how successful we'll be," said Jim Adams, president of the center, "but our intention is to demystify technology and give people a better sense of the process." In other words, Adams' intention is to define technology. Where the dictionary falls short, the Technology Center plans to step in.

Perhaps the best way to understand the steps that the center will take is to consider a scenario verbally sketched in conversation with Adams, who is known as an innovative thinker and clear talker.

He chairs Stanford University's Program in Values, Technology, Science and Society, is a former art student and a current professor of mechanical engineering and engineering management at Stanford.

Adams has an abiding interest in technology. If you doubt it, check out his backyard, where you'll find antique tractors that he's restored, or visit his office, which is full of technological gewgaws ranging from a 1910 one-cylinder internal combustion engine to a turbine wheel off a General Electric jet engine.

A Theoretical Exhibit

Here is Adams with an off-the-cuff description of a theoretical Technology Center exhibit:

"Something happens to define the problem ('We need a cheap machine to desalinate sea water'), then we consider marketing, financing and feasibility. There is the preliminary design, a kind of thinking of ideas. Then the detail design. You tend to double back a lot. Then prototypes are made, and they usually don't work, so there's the development stage. Then comes the manufacturing stage. Manufacturing is very important, and it usually doesn't get attention, though it's starting to right now because it's the key to the United States' ability to compete in the world today. Then there's sales: getting it out there. And maintenance: fixing it when it breaks. Maybe there's disposal of waste.

"This is the technological process, and it's messy. Science gives you understanding. Technology uses that understanding."

It is technology's messy process that gets a product out of the factory door and into the marketplace. The Technology Center aims to take its visitors by the hand and guide them through the maze of that messy process.

'More Compromise'

"Technology has more compromise than science," Adams continued. "If you're trying to understand the structure of the double helix, you don't think of what engineers call trade-offs. But if you're trying to develop a computer for a certain number of dollars in two years so you can warrantee it for a year, you're going to compromise and give up a lot.

"When you're time-limited and money-limited and trying to make something, you don't have the luxury of making it last forever or work perfectly. You can't get to the final truth."

Technology may not reach the final truth, but it always stretches to gain a tangible truth: something to use, something to sell.

Such stretching can be quiet and contemplative, as it usually is in the ivory towers of universities and the layered establishment that makes up much of the corporate world.

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