Env SC 370 Emergence of Western Technology

FALL 2008

Instructor: Steve Dutch, LS 463 Phone: 465-2246
e:mail: dutchs@uwgb.edu
home page: http://www.uwgb.edu/dutchs


Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Texts: Burke Day the Universe Changed, Dutch, Emergence of Western Technology

Syllabus

Week Topic Reading
Sept. 2-4 Goals and Structure of the Course.
Values and the University.
What are Science and Technology?
D 1,2; B 1
Sept. 9-11 Ancient Technology D 3
Sept. 16-18 Rome and After B 2, D 4
Sept. 23-25 Islam and Technology D 5
Sept. 30 - Oct. 2 East meets West I - the Crusades and Mongol conquests D 6-7
Oct. 7 - 9 Medieval Science and Technology B 3 D 8,9
Oct. 14-16 Information Revolutions: Perspective and Printing Press B 4 D 10-12
Oct. 21-23 Copernicus, Galileo and Newton B 5 D 13-15
Oct. 28-30 East Meets West II: The Age of Exploration B 6 D 16-1
Nov. 4-6 The Industrial Revolution B 6, D 18
Nov. 11-13 Statistics: How we Became Numbers B 7 D 19
Nov. 18-20 Evolution and the Notion of Progress B 8 D 20
Nov. 25 The Technology of War D 21
Nov. 27-30 Thanksgiving  
Dec. 2 Birth of the Modern World D 22-24
Dec. 4-9 Why Us? What Accounts for the Success of the West? B 10 D 25

Final Exam: Tuesday, December 21, 1:00-3:00

Texts: Burke Day the Universe Changed, Dutch, Emergence of Western Technology

Grading

Quizzes: (6, 10% each) 60% A 90%+ of top grade
Final 30% AB 85-89
Instructor Evaluation 10 % B 80-84
    BC 75-79
    C 70-74
    D 60-69

Instructor evaluation includes participation and attendance. It is used for situations like extended illness or other justified absence, or for people who get off to a slow start but finish well. On the other hand, if you attend class irregularly and miss a grade breakpoint by a small margin, I will let the results speak for themselves. Evaluation is never used to bring a grade down.

About the Course

What the Course is not:

What the Course is:

Important Themes of the Course

What happened in the history of Europe that allowed it to overtake other cultures with far more advanced technologies?

If you had visited Earth in a spaceship in 1100 A.D. and tried to guess where technology would develop in the future, what would you have guessed? China certainly would look promising, so would Japan. India and the Middle East would stand out, possibly Meso-America and the Andes. Jutting out from Eurasia would have been a large semi-developed peninsula called Europe, not as primitive as many parts of the world but clearly not in the same league as China or the Middle East. Off the northwest coast of Europe is a large island with real problems. Only a few decades before, they had been overrun by their more advanced mainland neighbors. Their language was becoming a creole language with foreign words thickly layered onto native grammar and vocabulary.

You would not be likely to guess that this emerging language would be used in a few centuries by William Shakespeare to create some of the greatest literary works in the entire history of the planet, still less would you guess that in 900 years this language would be the dominant language of science and technology for the whole planet, or that speakers of this language would be the first to set foot on the moon.

Technology is an intellectual enterprise that has produced ideas as brilliant as any to be found in more abstract realms.

My favorite example is the rainbow decorative film we find everywhere. In the 19th century, the only way to split light into its component colors was with a prism. In theory, a grid of very finely-spaced grooves or bumps would also work. Light scatters off each bump and successive wave fronts add up in certain directions to give a particularly strong reflection. The colors of peacock feathers, butterfly wings and opals are produced this way. In principle, this mechanism should split light into a spectrum much more cleanly and precisely than a prism. A few people had tried to make such a grid, called a diffraction grating, but the results were not very good. Henry A. Rowland of Rensselaer Institute took on the challenge. To make an effective diffraction grating, 20,000 lines per inch must be scratched into glass or metal, perfectly straight and perfectly even. No machine can be made so rigid it will not flex far more than 1/20,000 of an inch. Rowland realized he had to regard his machine as being made out of rubber. He could not hold the work in place by brute force but had to devise various feedback devices to correct for the flexing of the machine. A typical grating three inches square has three miles of grooves and took about three weeks to make. During his career, Rowland and his assistants made a couple of hundred gratings.

With Rowland's gratings, it became possible to measure the wavelengths of light emitted by atoms to unprecedented accuracy. The theory that explains these observations, quantum theory, is widely regarded as the most successful theory in science in terms of the range of phenomena it describes and the accuracy it achieves. Almost every fundamental atomic property that enters into quantum mechanics traces back, in some way or another, to one of Rowland's gratings.

Later on, it was shown that you could pour liquid plastic onto a diffraction grating and peel off a replica that was almost as good as the original. Nowadays we use laser holography or laser etching to make diffraction gratings for decoration. The play of colors on a compact disk arises because there are tiny pits on the disk that act as a diffraction grating. (A phonograph record, with much wider grooves, acts like a crude diffraction grating.) But lasers and solid-state electronics would not exist without quantum mechanics, and owe their existence to Rowland's original diffraction gratings. Nowadays rainbow film is so commonplace it costs pennies a square foot, and not one person in a thousand knows the story behind it.

Technology is our life-support system

It does not surprise me that millions of people go to bed hungry every night. What amazes me is that millions of people go to bed well-fed, even overweight. It does not surprise me that there is oppression in the world. What amazes me is that millions of people have enormous amounts of freedom, and have been able to establish and maintain societies that value freedom, even at the cost of great inconvenience and hardship. None of these is a given. There is no guarantee that the world must have evolved to create prosperous and free societies. Technology obviously plays a role in creating material plenty, but I am convinced that there is also an intimate link between technology and Western concepts of individuality. People invent when they see themselves as autonomous agents who can change the world; by empowering people, technology reinforces the belief that we are autonomous agents.

Millions of very intelligent people have devoted enormous effort to creating the comfortable lives we take for granted. Their achievements deserve to be treated with respect.

About James Burke:

James Burke of the BBC has written two books, both based on video series, that have been used in this course.

Connections explores the often bizarre interconnections between technological innovations. Each episode would begin with some innovation in the past and end with something completely unrelated in the present. For example, the opening episode ends with the atomic bomb. Five minutes before the end of the program, Burke is still in the early 20th century talking about weather research, and especially the efforts of one scientist to understand optical phenomena in clouds. The first time I saw the video, I wondered how in the world Burke was going to wrap things up in five minutes. The cloud researcher invented a device that would make miniature clouds in the laboratory - the cloud chamber - one of the most important research tools in nuclear physics, and a device that led more or less directly to the atomic bomb.

Day the Universe Changed deals with several points where the Western world experienced a fundamental change in how it viewed some important aspect of the world, for example, how the printing press changed our ideas about information and its reliability. It is a more "linear" treatment of history than Connections but the videos are often a little too densely-packed with information for easy viewing. The final chapter suffers from the flaw of confusing views of reality with reality itself.

Burke has a lot of fans and there are a number of Web pages devoted to him and his writings.

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