2005 Reith lectures: Lecture 4 Nanotechnology and Nanoscience

*Lecture 4: Nanotechnology and Nanoscience * – http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2005/lecture4.shtml

Since time immemorial people have been entranced by structures of great size. From the Colossus of Rhodes and the Great Pyramid, themselves no mean technical achievements, to the mighty Cunard ‘Queens’ built here in Glasgow, and whichever is transiently the tallest building in the world, beholders have gaped at the gigantic. One simple attraction has been that of comparative scale, so many times the size of a man or a horse or of Nelson’s column, as popular illustrations used to show. It was easy for the bystander immediately to apprehend the vast size of these objects.

In some of these instances, big was beautiful: the sole purpose of size was to inspire awe. But, increasingly, in other cases there was an important practical purpose, the superior functionality of a large steamship or aircraft, for instance, which would out-perform its smaller rivals. Starting with that greatest of engineers, I.K.Brunel, increase in size, whether of ships or railway locomotives, became an important technical aspiration.

2005 Reith lectures: Lecture 5 Risk and Responsibility

*Lecture 5: Risk and Responsibility * http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2005/lecture5.shtml

Almost exactly 93 years ago tonight, on 15 April 1912, over two thousand terrified and bewildered people found themselves with little warning drifting or drowning in the ice-cold North Atlantic. Only 712 of them survived that night. They were, of course, the passengers, officers, and crew of the White Star steamship Titanic, and they were in a sense victims of ‘failures’ of technology.

The Titanic disaster was in the main a result of over-reach, of a gap between the achievements of some technologies and the shortcomings of others; and of managerial failures on the part of those who used the available technology. Although Titanic had a radio communications system – and it was an important factor in directing rescue vessels to her – it was a system still in its infancy. Although the technology of shipbuilding already embraced double skins and water-tight bulkheads, these fell far short of the completeness that we now expect. Those navigating this huge vessel were in some important respects no further advanced than the Vikings who had sailed these same seas ten centuries before: they could locate themselves only by means of stellar observation and dead reckoning, and they had only their eyes to see what lay ahead – and this was less than a hundred years ago.

2005 Reith lectures: Chapter 3 Innovation and Management

Lecture 3: Innovation and Management http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2005/lecture3.shtml

When Ralph Waldo Emerson reputedly and memorably said that the world would beat a path to the door of a person who made a better mousetrap, he was perhaps being unduly optimistic, but at least he realised that the mousetrap had to be made and that it would not be sufficient merely to have an idea, or even a patent, for a better mouse trap. Ideas have to be proven to be useful, and the world told about them, before any paths are beaten. Profound changes have taken place in the development of ideas and their translation in to the market place and in my third Reith lecture I argue that this innovation revolution demands a new approach to research and product development.

To illustrate this story I go back to the beginning of my research career. I was drawn to Britain from the sunshine of Australia in 1959 because Britain led the world in making the best domestic electronics, especially the high fidelity sound systems that had fascinated me since I was a boy. I had formed a little company in Melbourne – today we would call it a start-up – that made hi fi systems for rich farmers, and all the equipment that we used was British, including the electronic components, so my ambition was to come to England and work on their further development.

But by the time I had finished my PhD in 1965 the excitement in electronics had moved to transistors and the newly emerging integrated circuits, and my PhD research had taken me strongly in this direction. Some of the important concepts for integrated circuits had emerged in Britain, in particular at the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment in Malvern, but the most exciting research was being pursued in the laboratories of the large American technology companies. There was a great demand for PhD graduates in electronics and related fields and the ‘brain drain’ from the UK to the USA was at full flow.

There was no doubt in anybody’s mind at that time that the ideal model for technology development was the large, well funded, industrial research laboratory staffed with talented PhD graduates from the world’s leading universities. Fundamental research could go on in universities but it was only in the large industrial or government funded research laboratories that the really important practical advances were made. If I wanted to work on the creation of new technologies – on the evolution of the better mousetrap – then I would have to go to such a laboratory. This was not only the case in computers and communication but in the transport, chemical and pharmaceutical industries also.

2005 Reith lectures: Chapter 2 – Collaboration


When I returned to this Engineering Department from the USA in 1984 my wife and I bought an historic and wonderful house some ten miles south of Cambridge. It was built around 1520, a date that could be substantiated to within a decade by the form of the oak beams that comprised its floors and ceilings. These had been shaped by iron blades that only lasted about ten years. Being someone of the present rather than the past I had not previously been much preoccupied with history but living in the splendid oak structure – like a fine sailing vessel that had gone aground – inspired me to wonder what had preoccupied the technologists and scientists of that age.

In my search I discovered that on 24 August 1563 a ‘conjunction’ took place of the planets Saturn and Jupiter. The two appeared so close together in the sky that they seemed to merge together. This rare occurrence was of great importance in an era when it was widely believed that exceptional astronomical events both influenced and predicted worldly happenings.

The problem was that the very best minds of the period, in Europe at least, were quite unable to calculate exactly when the conjunction was to take place. Some calculations were at least a month out. The best were inaccurate by days. Given the science and technology of the period, such inaccuracy is easy to understand. There were no reliable and accurate clocks. And without astronomical telescopes, robust celestial observation was to a great extent impossible. And besides, how many of us could do this calculation today?

The importance of overcoming such problems was not just a matter of shoring up the credibility of astrologers. Upon fine and accurate astronomical observation, and upon accurate timekeeping, depended reliable navigation, and the possibility of fruitful voyaging in the coming centuries. Measurement, the development of observational instruments and accurate clocks, complex calculations: all these came together in the ensuing centuries. Technology was of importance and gained support and the process by which these advances was achieved perfectly illustrates the productive connection between science and technology. The latest manifestations of this are the Global Positioning System, which I shall describe later, and its European descendant Galileo.

2005 Reith lectures: Chapter 1 – The Triumph Of Technology

This year’s series is called The Triumph Of Technology

Four thousand years ago, just 5 miles north of present day Thetford, our Neolithic ancestors began what may have been the largest early industrial process in these islands. This is the site that the Anglo-Saxons called ‘Grimes Graves’ and it contains nearly four hundred mine-shafts, built to extract high-quality flints, which could be chipped to produce sharp cutting edges. Using nothing but tools of bone and wood and presumably the flints themselves, these ancient people excavated to a depth of up to twelve metres, to reach the buried flints. It has been calculated that the miners needed to remove 1000 tonnes of waste to produce eight tonnes of flint. The site covers nearly 40 hectares and the whole project is astonishing.

Whilst more advanced technologies had developed elsewhere – for instance in China – our ancestors’ task was anything but easy. They needed timbers to shore up their excavations and ladders to get down in to them, lighting was required in the deeper pits and they needed tools, which they made from deer antlers, so they had to manage the local herds of red-deer. A separate and skilled industry was required to work the extracted flints and to market and distribute them. The flints were used as axe heads, as agricultural implements, as arrow-heads, and no doubt there were countless other applications that we have lost track of. The Grimes Graves operation underpinned the foundations of a new sort of society. The timescale was quite different from our own. Excavation at Grime’s Graves lasted more than five centuries, whereas, for example, valve electronics lasted about fifty years.

TechnologyReview.com,The People Own Ideas!

TechnologyReview.com – The People Own Ideas!
By Lawrence Lessig June 2005

We entered the youth camp that morning by passing down a long, white gravel road and under a wooden gate. Spread to one side, and for as far as you could see, were rows and rows of tents. In front were scores of showers, with hundreds of kids in swimsuits milling about, waiting to rinse. It felt like a refugee camp.

In a sense, it was. More than a hundred thousand had descended upon Porto Alegre, Brazil, to attend the World Social Forum, a conference intended to offer a progressive alternative to the much smaller, and much more famous, World Economic Forum meeting at Davos, Switzerland (see “Letter from Davos,” April 2005).

Just past the showers was a sprawling collection of wooden huts, connected by a canvas spread across their roofs. This was the free-software lab. To the right, there was a training room, with more than 50 PCs arranged along long tables. At the far end was a large screen, where 20 to 30 kids were watching an instructor explain the workings of some video-editing software. Every machine was running free software only–GNU/Linux as the operating system, Mozilla as the browser, and a suite of media production software, most of which I had never seen on any machine anywhere.