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, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay

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


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


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 justifiedabsence, or for people who get off to a slow start but finish well. On the other hand, ifyou attend class irregularly and miss a grade breakpoint by a small margin, I will let theresults 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 withfar more advanced technologies?

If you had visited Earth in a spaceship in 1100 A.D. and tried to guess wheretechnology would develop in the future, what would you have guessed? China certainly wouldlook promising, so would Japan. India and the Middle East would stand out, possiblyMeso-America and the Andes. Jutting out from Eurasia would have been a largesemi-developed peninsula called Europe, not as primitive as many parts of the world butclearly not in the same league as China or the Middle East. Off the northwest coast ofEurope is a large island with real problems. Only a few decades before, they had beenoverrun by their more advanced mainland neighbors. Their language was becoming a creolelanguage 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 fewcenturies by William Shakespeare to create some of the greatest literary works in theentire history of the planet, still less would you guess that in 900 years this languagewould be the dominant language of science and technology for the whole planet, or thatspeakers 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 anyto be found in more abstract realms.

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

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

Later on, it was shown that you could pour liquid plastic onto a diffraction gratingand peel off a replica that was almost as good as the original. Nowadays we use laserholography or laser etching to make diffraction gratings for decoration. The play ofcolors on a compact disk arises because there are tiny pits on the disk that act as adiffraction grating. (A phonograph record, with much wider grooves, acts like a crudediffraction grating.) But lasers and solid-state electronics would not exist withoutquantum 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 personin 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. Whatamazes me is that millions of people go to bed well-fed, even overweight. It does notsurprise me that there is oppression in the world. What amazes me is that millions ofpeople have enormous amounts of freedom, and have been able to establish and maintainsocieties that value freedom, even at the cost of great inconvenience and hardship. Noneof these is a given. There is no guarantee that the world must have evolved to createprosperous and free societies. Technology obviously plays a role in creating materialplenty, but I am convinced that there is also an intimate link between technology andWestern concepts of individuality. People invent when they see themselves as autonomousagents who can change the world; by empowering people, technology reinforces the beliefthat we are autonomous agents.

Millions of very intelligent people have devoted enormous effort to creating thecomfortable lives we take for granted. Their achievements deserve to be treated withrespect.

About James Burke:

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

Connections explores the often bizarre interconnections between technologicalinnovations. Each episode would begin with some innovation in the past and end withsomething completely unrelated in the present. For example, the opening episode ends withthe atomic bomb. Five minutes before the end of the program, Burke is still in the early20th century talking about weather research, and especially the efforts of one scientistto understand optical phenomena in clouds. The first time I saw the video, I wondered howin the world Burke was going to wrap things up in five minutes. The cloud researcherinvented 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 orless directly to the atomic bomb.

Day the Universe Changed deals with several points where the Western worldexperienced a fundamental change in how it viewed some important aspect of the world, forexample, how the printing press changed our ideas about information and its reliability.It is a more "linear" treatment of history than Connections but thevideos are often a little too densely-packed with information for easy viewing. The finalchapter 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 hiswritings.


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