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Jack Smith

Plagued by ignorance about technology, perhaps it's time to get up and atom

February 24, 1986|Jack Smith

According to a story in the paper the other day, so-called experts who met at a three-day National Technological Literacy Conference in Baltimore were worried that most of us in America are "technologically illiterate."

That means we don't understand the very technology that facilitates modern life, and which, ironically, also threatens its existence.

They stated, for example, that in a national survey of 2,000 adults more than 80% did not understand how telephones work and 75% did not have a clear understanding of what computer software is.

I'm afraid that if that is the kind of question they asked, I'd turn out to be a technological illiterate myself.

We are all masters, in a way, of our technology. Its genies are ours to command. Its miracles are at our fingertips. Yet few of us understand how our machines and appliances and playthings work.

I have a nightmare in which I am on the witness stand and am being asked all kinds of simple questions about technology.

Q: Mr. Smith, I assume you have a telephone.

A: Oh, yes. Use it all the time.

Q: Just answer the questions, Mr. Smith. Please tell us, in your own words, how the telephone works.

A: Well, it has this cord, which connects with the wires outside, on the poles, and those wires connect with central, wherever that is, and central has wires going all over the world, so you can call anywhere in the world you want to.

Q: I see. And what is the energy that carries your voice over those wires?

A: Electricity.

Q: And what is electricity?

A: I haven't the slightest idea.

Q: Then, in fact, Mr. Smith, you don't know how the telephone works.

A: Not really.

Q: Now it is true, Mr. Smith, is it not, that you own a computer?

A: That's right. I own an IBM PC. However, I don't use it for anything but word processing.

Q: And you use a software program for this word processing?

A: Yes. It's called Easy Writer.

Q: And what is software, Mr. Smith?

A: Well, it's this floppy disk, like a little phonograph record. You put it in the computer and turn it on and your Easy Writer program is ready to work.

Q: How does your computer work? What takes place inside the computer that makes it work?

A: Electricity.

Q: But you don't know what electricity is?

A: No, not for sure.

Q: I see. Mr. Smith, do you know what an atom is?

A: Yes, of course. Everyone knows what an atom is.

Q: Please tell us, in your words, what an atom is.

A: Well, it's the smallest unit of matter. Except that it has these even smaller units whirling around inside it. They're called electrons and protons and neutrons and I think there are some others they've discovered recently that I can't remember the names of.

Q: Mr. Smith, do you know how these particles inside the atom act?

A: I forget. They spin around. I know there's another one called the neutrino, but they don't know whether it has any mass or not.

Q: They don't know whether it has any mass or not?

A: Yes, that's right. I have this friend at Caltech. I had breakfast with him the other morning, He's a nuclear physics engineer. He builds machines in which they try to catch neutrinos.

Q: They try to catch neutrinos?

A: Yes. The whole question is whether neutrinos have any mass or not. If they have mass, it changes everything.

Q: What do you mean, changes everything?

A: Well, you know the Big Bang theory? That the universe started something like 15 billion years ago with a big explosion? And that all the stars and planets are hurtling outward through space from the point of this big bang?

Q: Go on.

A: Now if the neutrinos don't have any mass, that means that things will go on exploding outward through infinity. So that means the universe will expand forever. But if the neutrino has mass, that means it's like everything was attached to a rubber band that will stretch only so far, and when it stretches as far as it can, it will start to retract, and then everything in the universe will start coming back to where it started from.

Q: I see. And what exactly are these neutrinos, which may or may not have mass?

A: I haven't the slightest idea. Nobody has ever seen one.

Q: Perhaps you can tell us why, if the neutrino should turn out to have mass, the universe will come back together, so to speak.

A: That's because there are so many neutrinos that if they turned out to have mass their gravity would sooner or later counteract the force of the original explosion, and bring everything back.

Q: Mr. Smith, do you have any idea how large the universe is?

A: No. Carl Sagan says there are more stars than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of the world. I can't conceive of that many stars.

Q: And yet you say that the neutrino, which no one can see, can make all those stars snap back.

A: That's what my friend said at breakfast. I might have got it wrong. I had a glass of champagne.

Q: Would you say, Mr. Smith, that you are technologically illiterate?

A: That's right. No doubt about it.

Q: You may step down.

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