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Jack Smith

A computer at the Science and Industry Museum may still be processing one man's cry for help

July 01, 1985|JACK SMITH

Being aware that almost every schoolchild knows more about our technology than I do, I went over to the California Museum of Science and Industry the other day, in Exposition Park, to see if I could catch up.

It is much expanded and updated since I was there last, but of course there are some permanent exhibits, like the one on mathematics.

By the way, I was surprised to find a McDonald's built right into the museum. Now that's what I call technology.

I found numerous exhibits on heat, energy and their conservation in an area called "The Energy Experience," including one that purported to explain nuclear fusion.

"First," it said, "thermonuclear ignition temperature must be reached. Such temperatures are needed to impart sufficient speed to the nuclei to overcome their mutual electric repulsion."

I could read a dozen books on the nucleus and not know what it is and how it acts. I think you have to have faith, to believe in atomic science.

I remembered the museum's perpetual motion machine from years ago. Evidently no progress has been made in achieving perpetual motion. The machine--an antique--was a wheel with outside arms on which iron balls rolled out to the periphery and back again. Looked as if it might work.

"Perpetual motion machines will always fail," a sign said, "because no machine can ever be 100% perfect."

How do they know that? It has something to do with the second law of thermodynamics. And entropy.

I wrote about entropy a year or so ago, and I have a thick file of letters I received explaining it; but I still don't know what it is. The only explanation I remember is one given me by a physicist at a Caltech cocktail party. He whispered conspiratorially, "It's a green gas."

They have added a computer exhibit since I was there last. There are banks of computers that children can simply sit down and work with, without someone coaching over their shoulders.

I found one unused and sat down to try it. I pushed the key for HELP and found a list of things it would do for me. All I had to do was keep punching the right keys, as instructed. I asked it who had won the 100-yard dash in the 1932 Olympics, and it asked me, "Man or woman?" I punched M for man, and the answer appeared: Eddie Tolan, U.S.A.

The HELP menu also said I could leave a message on the computer's bulletin board. It asked me to give my name and then my message. I typed "Jack Smith," and then "Help!"

By that time a little girl was looking over my shoulder. I stood up and surrendered the machine to her.

In the mathematics room I stood in front of the multiplication machine and watched a series of children make calculations. It's a large square of light bulbs in rows. If you ask it to multiply three by six it will light up six rows of three bulbs, so you can see that 3x6 is merely three repeated six times. I can never remember what 8x7 is, so when it was free, I asked it to calculate 8x7, and it lighted up seven rows of eight bulbs. The result was 56.

A sign said: "In mathematics a system is acceptable if it does not contradict itself. Arithmetic itself cannot be proved consistent, though nobody believes that it will ever be found to contradict itself."

I had forgotten that. I had always believed that arithmetic was the one thing we could count on, provided that we didn't err in doing the problems.

A quotation from "Through the Looking Glass" hung from the ceiling: "When I use a word," Humpty-Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

That seemed an odd thought for a mathematics room. Didn't a number mean exactly what it meant and not what someone thought it meant?

I walked over to the space wing--a towering addition to what used to be the armory. Droves of children seemed to be grazing over the great porch that had been built for the Olympics. (I wonder what happened to the two ancient cannons they used to have there.) Most of the children were in shepherded groups, and some of the groups wore alike T-shirts, no doubt to make them easier to find.

I fell in with a group and went inside. The museum has obtained mock-ups of some of the early space machines and satellites, or perhaps the real thing, and I realized that all the children had been born into a world where men had already traveled in space and landed on the moon.

Can they doubt that anything is possible? Or are they like most of us were--believing that man had gone about as far as he could go?

At the top of the wing we entered a dark theater and watched a movie about space exploration from the calculations of Copernicus and Galileo to the mighty rocket shots from Canaveral and Vandenberg. The words were by Ray Bradbury, the narration by James Whitmore, and I wondered how many children in that dark room would be inspired to aim for the stars.

I still don't understand the age I live in. I am strictly a spectator, and I haven't given up on perpetual motion. Remember, they said we could never go to the moon because of Earth's gravity, too.

I wonder if that little girl got my message.

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