Friday, July 21, 2006


Ah, but I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now

Over on ScienceBlogs, this week's Ask a ScienceBlogger question interests me, so here's an unofficial, ScienceBlogger-like answer to this (borrowing some material I wrote last year):

If you could have practiced science in any time and any place throughout history, which would it be, and why?
Two ScienceBlogs participants — Dynamics of Cats and Respectful Insolence — have already given the same answer as I have: Here and now.

To be sure, there are times in the past when it seems there was so much to discover, when we knew so little and the smallest advancements in the science of the time were huge leaps that enabled the next round of discovery. Yet look at where we've come in the last 40 years! And when you consider that my chosen field is computer science, well I guess that sets the time frame, since the field itself didn't exist much before "now" anyway.

To take a random year as an anchor, let's start when I was six years old, we'd recently moved to Florida, and I was in second grade.

In 1963...

  • Most television was in black and white, and those programs that were in colour explicitly told us so, and displayed logos like the "NBC Peacock". There were only a handful of television stations (four in the Miami area, where I lived), and they didn't broadcast all the time; we saw "test patterns", or "snow" when they were off the air.
  • We listened to music on AM radio, "45s" and "LPs". My family had some "78s", too.
  • Computers existed in large companies and research facilities, and filled rooms. One person could use the computer at a time, and "timesharing systems" were early research projects.

In 1973...

  • Colour television was widespread, but many people still had black-and-white TVs. Cable TV was beginning to become available, providing better service to people in areas with few broadcasters or poor reception.
  • We listened to 8-track tapes, cassettes, and FM radio, in addition to the older stuff.
  • My school had a computer that a select group of students (including me, yay!) could use and learn on. It had 2000 words of memory, no hard drive, and a paper-tape reader.
  • More powerful computers were now affordable by medium-sized businesses, but still occupied whole rooms. Timesharing was widely available.
  • Remote computer connections ran at 100 bits per second — 300 bps was the leading edge.

In 1983...

  • Colour TV was the norm, and many TVs now had remote controls, so you didn't have to get up and turn a dial to change the channel. Cable TV was becoming the norm in many areas, and was scheduled to be installed in my neighbourhood "soon".
  • CD players were new, but little music was available for them yet.
  • Personal computers were around. The most powerful had 30 MB hard drives and processors with 10 MHz clocks.
  • Email had been around for a few years by this time, but was pretty much available only to scientists and academics, and in closed systems in some large companies. IBM had developed PROFS in a joint project with Amoco.
  • Remote computer connections ran at 1200 bits per second; 2400 bps was soon to come.

In 1993...

  • Everyone had colour TV with remote controls, cable, and VCRs.
  • Everyone had CD players, and it was hard to find music on LP any more.
  • PCs were widespread, and we were using processors with clock speeds on the order of 100 MHz and hard drives on the order of 1 GB.
  • The worldwide web had been around for a couple of years, and companies were starting to establish web presences. Consumer business on the web was still fairly uncommon.
  • People were using pre-web services like Prodigy, CompuServ, and AOL. Other ISPs were starting up, and "regular people" were starting to use email. Spam was still an insignificant problem.
  • Dial-up speeds were up to 14,400 and 28,800 bps. 56 kbps coming.

In 2003...

  • Cable, satellite, TiVo, DVD. Netflix.
  • iPods, Napster, DVD audio, XM radio. Who needs CDs? One carries one's entire music collection in one's breast pocket.
  • PC clock speeds over 2000 MHz, hard drives of at least 40 GB are standard, much larger are widely available, cost is on the order of a dollar a gigabyte.
  • Everything is on the web.
  • Everyone uses email, if they can find it through the spam.
  • What, you don't have broadband? How do you watch the YouTube videos?

Where will we be in 2013? It's impossible to tell, since the technological leaps of each of the previous ten-year periods could never have been predicted. How exciting! I can't imagine a better environment to be in. So much has already been discovered, and yet look at how much there still is to find, and to create. To be sure, it will be a challenge to impress a society that's inured, by now, to the technology. If you have any doubt about how we take it all for granted now, take note that advice to evacuate Lebanon is being sent to Americans through, among other channels, text messages on their mobile phones.

No, I wouldn't look for any time but now to be a scientist. And the only other thing I can say about it is that I wish I could see where we are in 2103.

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