The Age of Ignorance -

The Age of Ignorance

Though I don't always agree with columnist George Will's opinions, hiserudite writing and careful reasoning makes for enjoyable reading.

Untilthis: while celebrating the integrated circuit he wrote: “Modernity means the multiplication ofdependencies on things utterly mysterious to those who are dependent –things such as semiconductors, which control the functioning of almosteverything from cellphones to computers to cars.”

What nonsense . Of course themodern world is based on complex science and technology. But ifanything, “modernity” means, or at least has brought, a multiplicity ofways to understand these marvelous creations and ideas. There havenever been more books and other media that describe the essentials ofevery facet of the modern world, in ways accessible to any interestedand reasonably-literate layperson.

For instance, JamesGleick's Chaos is a fascinating and eminently-readable descriptionabout the obscure subject of sensitive dependence on initial conditionsin dynamical systems. It ranks 10,732 on Amazon's list of books, notbad for such an arcane subject.

Are the ideas behind quantum mechanics accessible only to physicsPhDs? Maybe George Will thinks so, but try Quantum:A Guide for the Perplexed by Jim Al-Khalili. The first half is abreathtaking romp through the fascinating notions of this, the mostbasic of all sciences. The second half was, to me at least, ratherperplexing. But interesting. Thought provoking. And broadening.

As engineers we're pretty familiar with how things work. Frequenttear downs on this site give us the implementation details of all sortsof common consumer products. But any willing person with a high schooleducation can get the essentials of most of these products.

How does a TV work? (“By hittingthe ON button” is not the correct answer ). Go to howstuffworks.comfor an in-depth and lucidexplanation of the technology. The same ad-plagued site details theoperation of computers and most of what makes the modern world tick.

Once the educated person was expected to have some knowledge of manythings. Literature, philosophy, religion and the sciences were allessential parts of what was called a liberal education. But today toomany buy into Will's eagerness to be nothing more than users ofincomprehensible technology. Press the green button and the systemsbehaves in some manner, but the connection between the button and theaction is utterly mysterious. Electedbuffoons make no attempt to understand the science they legislate.

That's a return to the pre-Enlightenment belief in magic.

This is a comprehensible world. Only a few of us need to be nuclearphysicists or molecular biologists. But the ideas behind all of thosefields is within our reach. We should all take wonder and delight inhow things work, in exploring different ideas whether they be inscience, technology, or any other field. From genetic engineering tospace science, many of the great debates of the coming years willderive from science.

Unless we're have an understanding of the basis of these issues,we'll be like the apes swinging clubs in “2001: ASpace Odyssey.”

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embeddeddevelopment issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helpscompanies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at . His website is .

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