WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The National Science and Technology Medals were handed out this week here in our nation's capital. The president presided over a morning ceremony at the White House, and there was a classy dinner in the evening, with the honorees present. I missed the morning ceremony, for I remain after all these years technologically baffled. An invitation was tendered to me, but it came in over the Internet as e-mail. I missed it. The dinner invitation came snail-mail, so I was there, in black tie and with pen in hand to record the doings.
America has been riding a surge in scientific and technological innovation for decades, and, if anything, the surge has grown broader. In past decades, we read newspaper account after newspaper account of miraculous innovations that were about to transform our lives. The stories are not as popular today. We have become inured to the miraculous innovations all around us. Moreover, some of the latest are so complicated and portend such far-ranging change as to bewilder readers.
Consider the tiny computer chips that might be lodged in our bodies someday, serving the same purpose larger chips now serve in our automobiles. They will notify us when our cholesterol count or some enzyme count signals danger. They will warn us that a knee is wearing out and in need of replacement. Vital organs will be monitored by the tiny computers and replaced in due course by new, improved vital organs. Conceivably, these chips will keep us alive forever. As I say, the present surge in science and technology is almost too much to bear.
At dinner the other night, whole teams of scientists and engineers were recognized for ingenious inventions and procedures. So were individuals. What attracts me to these awards is that unlike those for the humanities, these are harder to fake. They are more dependent on objective evidence. The consequence of each innovation is usually apparent. Politics and lobbying is more difficult in science and technology than in belles lettres or the plastic arts.
Yet, this is not always the case. One of the awardees is Bob Metcalfe. He invented Ethernet, which was an early step toward the Internet. Ethernet allowed local area computers to communicate. After that came the vast worldwide communication system that is the Internet. Then came the capacity to search and index documents on the Net that is Google. Metcalfe tells an amusing story demonstrating that this week's awards are not completely free of politics.
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