Sunday, August 17, 2014

Distinguishable from magic?

Arthur C. Clarke's most famous epigram is that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  A question that I've heard debated in recent years is, have we gone far enough down that road that it's adversely affecting the science and engineering education pipeline?  There was a time when young people interested in technology could rip things apart and actually get a moderately good sense of how those gadgets worked.  This learning-through-disassembly approach is still encouraged, but the scope is much more limited. 

For example, when I was a kid (back in the dim mists of time known as the 1970s and early 80s), I ripped apart transistor radios and at least one old, busted TV.  Inside the radios, I saw how the AM tuner worked by sliding a metal contact along a wire solenoid - I learned later that this was tuning an inductor-capacitor resonator, and that the then-mysterious diodes in there (the only parts on the circuit board with some kind of polarity stamped on them, aside from the electrolytic capacitors on the power supply side) somehow were important at getting the signal out.  Inside the TV, I saw that there was a whopping big transformer, some electromagnets, and that the screen was actually the front face of a big (13 inch diagonal!) vacuum tube.  My dad explained to me that the electromagnets helped raster an electron beam back and forth in there, which smacked on phosphors on the inside of the screen.  Putting a big permanent magnet up against the front of a screen distorted the picture and warped the colors in a cool way that depended strongly on the distance between the magnet and the screen, and on the magnet's orientation, thanks to the magnet screwing with the electron beam's trajectory. 

Now, a kid opening up an ipod or little portable radio will find undocumented integrated circuits that do the digital tuning.  Flat screen LCD TVs are also much more black-box-like (though the light source is obvious), again containing lots of integrated circuits.  Touch screens, the accelerometers that determine which way to orient the image on a cell phone's screen, the chip that actually takes the pictures in a cell phone camera - all of these seem almost magical, and they are either packaged monolithically (and inscrutably), or all the really cool bits are too small to see without a high-power optical microscope.  Even automobiles are harder to figure out, with lots of sensors, solid-state electronics, and an architecture that often actively hampers investigation. 

I fully realize that I'm verging on sounding like a grumpy old man with an onion on his belt (non-US readers: see transcript here).  Still, the fact that understanding of everyday technology is becoming increasingly inaccessible, disconnected with common sense and daily experience, does seem like a cause for concern.  Chemistry sets, electronics sets, arduinos and raspberry pi-s, these are all ways to fight this trend, and their use should be encouraged!


Anzel said...

1. I think we've also done a disservice in reducing VoTech options in schools. One of the greatest things I've learned to do in my Physics PhD education was learn how to do milling and lathing (it really helped me start to understand experimental physics more). As for those string-theory purists? Eh, it'll do their soul good to get their hands covered in tapping fluid once and a while.

2. Curriculum suggestion for Rice physics--I think a lot of the experiments we did for 111/112 and even 231 were kind of goofy, and didn't really do much to teach me experimental physics. I'd really suggest that instead of 10 unrelated mini labs students work on one or two multi-step projects each semester where they do a little design, a little programming (say with a microcontroller), and then cap it off with a real experiment.

3. This is on top of my (again) suggestion that we need to make sure Rice physics undergrads know how to program. You don't need to know how to manage fancy APIs and discuss the finer points of algorithm design, but I think that anyone who leaves Rice unable to control a oscilloscope by USB and code up an adaptive Runge-Kutta solver that deals with an arbitrary input function in their sleep is really at a disadvantage. The intro to Matlab done in DiffE is a start but just not enough. (It's one semester, one time).

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Rizvia Belal said...

Great blog!
Like you I also ripped apart transistor radios in my childhood but that time I didn't know anything about it.As a science student now I know how it works.
Thank you...
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Tobias said...

I have a generally positive outlook on this - yes, in general fixing electronic devices has become much harder. Not only are newer devices hardly ever documented, but also the prevalence of SMD parts creates a barrier of entry for inexperienced solderers.

However, in addition to nice projects like the Raspberry PI and the Beaglebone, there is nowadays a wealth of information freely accessible on the internet - when I was in my early teens, the only source of information was about half a shelf of books on electronics and computers at the local library. I think the bigger challenge when you have a child that gets interested in technical things is to get them started in a way that is not completely overwhelming.

Also, of course the topics that are accessible are much different today. When I was a young teen, I built an AM radio from discrete parts, but the FM radio I built already used an integrated PLL. I'm sure some purist could've argued that I'll never turn out to be a good RF designer because of that - but then this gave me more time to look into microcontrollers, bus systems etc. Today someone probably wouldn't bother with that, because every $1 MCU comes with a built-in UART, and so the "young apprentices" can jump on other things. A particularly good example I think are the PWM units that many MCUs come with - they're a great opportunity for cool circuit designs, and eventually you'll run into situations in which you'll have to learn about RC filters.

To make a long story short, I believe that for an interested youngster, the grass is greener than ever today, due to the information (and communities producing them) available online.