Is Your iPhone Cooler Than You Think?

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My post about the iPhone generated all sorts of fascinating responses from TPM Readers. Some of these responses were on the secondary question I raised about the pace of invention and scientific breakthroughs and whether or not it’s slowing down. One of the most interesting replies I got was from TPM Reader DN who sent in this note …

I liked your aside about iPhones. I’m writing this from the big American Physical Society meeting (this year in Minneapolis) that focuses on “condensed matter” or solid-state physics, the branch of physics that basically gave us the iPhone and a huge fraction of modern technology. The fact that we, humanity, understand and can control/engineer the properties of materials on a deep level is one of the great intellectual accomplishments of the species, and it’s massively underappreciated. Astro and particle physics get vastly more press and attention in pop culture, but solid-state physics affects your daily life far more. It’s rich and full of beautiful ideas, though admittedly it can be very tough to explain to a general audience.

Over the years I’ve heard analogous things from people in many fields. It gets at the difference between the expansion of knowledge and what that knowledge generates in the lives of average people. If we think back you can see that over not much longer than a half a century stretching from late 19th century to just after World War II we got phones, radio, TV, powered flight, atomic weapons and a whole bunch of other things. That’s a lot of stuff.

There’s a whole complicated set of questions about whether the subsequent 50 to 75 years matched up. Let’s be honest, flying is a big one. But so is the evolution of computer technology. DN wrote in a few days ago and I had planned on sharing it with you. But often I plan like that and then lose track. In this case I just got a note from another TPM Reader who argued that most or all of the stuff that goes into an iPhone existed decades before the iPhone was released.

My point here isn’t to say that that reader was wrong. It’s certainly true that places like Xerox PARC had developed digital cameras, touch screens, the basic architecture of the Internet and various other stuff. But I think DN‘s point would be that it’s one thing to have all those things. It’s another to be able to make them that small, and have them work that fast. Then there’s the related issue of being able to do it at scale and at relatively low cost. DN didn’t get into just when the key breakthroughs were made. But my point isn’t specific. I’m just sharing my own thoughts and things I’ve learned about how some technological breakthroughs can have massive impacts on daily life but not be well recognized.

One point I made in my exchange with DN is that there’s a shock value to some breakthroughs which in some cases isn’t matched by underlying revolutions in knowledge. Antibiotics seems like a good example of this. Truly, truly revolutionary impact on people’s lives. But at least as I understand it the initial discovery of penicillin wasn’t heavily based on a knowledge revolution. On the other hand, my dad received his PhD in marine botany in 1974. At the time Watson and Crick’s (and Franklin’s) discovery of the fundamental structure of DNA was only a bit over a decade old. And the ability to analyze and work with DNA was only in its infancy. This is such a fundamental part of the life sciences that you could almost describe the study of biology as only fully getting off the ground once the full understanding of DNA comes into view.

In physics, you know relativity works not only because it’s been confirmed by various replicable experiments but because atomic bombs go off. You can’t miss that. This was always my final resort in graduate school in discussions of the sociology of knowledge and scientific paradigms: we know physics is real because in this empirical, sensate reality that we live in, physicists are able to take the theory and reliably engineer unimaginable releases of energy in ways that don’t make any sense at all outside the theoretical framework of physics. Humanities grad school is weird. You had to be there.

In any case, let’s take off our hats to the condensed matter folks. Maybe they lack the star power of the particle physics folks. But they’re doing great work and many people are noticing.

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