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Accelerate Science. Live Better. OSTI

by Walt Warnick on Mon, November 03, 2008

Two hundred years ago the gulf between the rich and the common people was huge, illustrated by these photos.  On the left is Doughoregan Manor at Ellicott City, Maryland, largely built in the 1700's, home of Charles Carroll of Carrolton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  On the right is the cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809 located at Hodgenville, Kentucky.  Today, the public view of these times is influenced by the fact that many of the fabulous mansions yet survive, while the cabins that housed common people have long since been replaced.

Sources: Wikipedia articles "Abraham Lincoln" and "Doughoregan Manor".

The immediate goal of science is understanding, rather than social utility.  In the rush of day-to-day activity it is easy to overlook how science allows us to live better. The path from science to better lives is complex and often takes decades.  In broad terms, basic research first hands off its results to applied research.  Applied research then hands off to technology research and development, which then flows into entrepreneurship and finally manufacturing and distribution.  Then, and only then, are great benefits realized from science knowledge.

The role of science in improving lives can best be appreciated by examining changes over time.   Many of the older people today can recall times that seem to be the distant past, when the material comforts of life were fewer.  But what is seldom appreciated is the degree to which technological progress had by then already revolutionized and improved the lives of everyday people.  Consider the circumstances of an American household of the late 1700s when our country was founded.  They had no canned food (either bought or put up themselves), no stoves, neither matches nor coal oil, no real painkillers, and no antiseptics or antibiotics.  They never saw a photograph and never heard music except when they were in the presence of the performers. 

The harsh circumstances faced by past generations not only defined their lifestyle, but also shaped their values, character and personalities.  From our perspective in the first decade of the third millennium with amenities ranking from lasik eye surgery for vision correction to high speed internet, it is hard for us to imagine life preoccupied by immediate concerns for food, clothing, and shelter, as was the normal circumstance for every day people in the early years of our country. 

Here is what a traveler wrote in 1797 about his journey through western Maryland, much of which had just opened up for private ownership 10 years earlier.

     Several little farms appear among the bleak, barren

     hills.  I have rode through the Negro Mountains, through the

     Shades of Death, through the Savage Mountains, and many

     other desperate mountains in this part of Maryland, but I

     have seen nothing half so savage and desperate as many of

     the people.  Some of them appear but in slight degree like

     the human race.

This is an especially striking account when one considers that it was written by a man whose own circumstances would no doubt be viewed as desperate by citizens of our time.  After all, that traveler could know nothing of today's rapid and comfortable travel, year-round control of indoor temperatures, instantaneous communication and effective medical technology.  He would not know of such conveniences as window screens to keep insects out of the home, or such twentieth century amenities as indoor plumbing, insecticides, deodorants, toothpaste, or aspirin. Modern generations probably can never really appreciate the conditions and circumstances of that l8th century traveler, for science and resulting technological advances have shaped practically everything that people encounter and do.

Too little appreciated today is how technological advances have been the great equalizer of life styles between the rich and poor. Only the truly rich people of colonial times, like many of the founding fathers for example, had running water--whenever they wanted water they had some servant run and fetch it. Today, rich and poor alike have running water.

In colonial times, only the truly rich could hear professionally performed music--they hired musicians to come to their homes. Today, rich and poor alike can listen to any of a wide variety of the world's best musicians simply by surfing FM radio stations or switching on the iPod.

In colonial times, only the truly rich could have their likenesses preserved for their posterity--they had painters come into their homes and prepare portraits.  Today, rich and poor alike can take photographs and preserve their likenesses with a speed and accuracy unimagined before photography was invented in the mid-1800s.

In colonial times, only the truly rich had nearly effortless control of wintertime indoor air temperatures.  They had servants stoke the fires.  Today, rich and poor alike have heat controlled by automatic thermostat.

Today we can visit fabulous colonial estates like Monticello, where Thomas Jefferson lived, and Mount Vernon, where George Washington lived.  In Maryland, we might secure permission to drive by Doughoregan Manor, the palatial home of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of Maryland's founding fathers.  We can watch TV mini-series about the clean, articulate revolutionary heroes.  We can visit freshly painted, scrubbed, privy-less, and storm- sewered Williamsburg, Virginia.  And all this makes for an impressive, romantic picture, indeed.  But the larger truth is that the masses of that day, who after all comprise most of the ancestry of the masses of today, led lives having no resemblance whatever to those romanticized visions of their time.

The gulf between the classes, while still wide, has been much reduced, not by the egalitarian design of government or by the altruism of some philanthropist, but incidentally by scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs making progress for their own purposes.  The egalitarian effects of OSTI's own work with the internet transformation were addressed in a previous article, The Amazingly Egalitarian Impact of OSTI's Work.

All the technological advances that have so profoundly improved our lifestyle can be traced back to myriad advances in science.  Accelerating science will allow people tomorrow to live better still.  

OSTI is animated by the contribution we are making to accelerating science and allowing people to live better. 


Walt Warnick

Page last updated on 2016-04-25 06:18

About the Author

Dr. Walt Warnick's picture
Walt Warnick
Former Director, U.S. DOE Office of Scientific and Technical Information