Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Our Newly-Lost Sense of Astonishment

If you want to astonish anyone these days, they gotta be someone old enough to pre-date the personal computer. I was astonished when the Atomic Bomb went off above Hiroshima and a couple days later at Nagasaki. Prior to that, I’d found myself astonished at the unbelievable scenes as Nazi concentration camps were liberated.


But I’m old and those were old-timey astonishments.


ApplelisaI bought my first computer in 1982, an Apple Lisa that was touted to be the office machine of the future. As I recall, it set me back $10,000, which was what I had paid ten years earlier for a brand new Mercedes S-Class sedan. Lisa might not have equaled the cost of a Mercedes in '82, but it still cost as much as a hell of a fine brand new automobile. I was astonished.


And I continue to be, but over different stuff and I find more and more that I am alone among my younger friends in my naive ‘gee whiz’ way of looking at this world.


BeethovenExample: There’s an article in the paper today about speculation that lead poisoning killed Beethoven. Nothing amazing about that, until you get into the way they found out. Six hairs from Ludvig’s head, run through the particle accelerator at the Argonne National Laboratory outside of Chicago, confirms earlier speculation that lead was the culprit. It probably accounted for Beethoven's decades of poor health, which ended in his death at age fifty-six.


Still not so astounding, until you hear what a particle accelerator is: a half-mile long doughnut-shaped tunnel, a kind of vacuum slingshot through which subatomic particles reach 99.999 percent of the speed of light. We humans actually figured out how to do that? Yep. Mr. Einstein. We know we’re still .001 percent slow? Yes we do. Amazing.


ParticleacceleratorWhen those little suckers get going that fast down the backstretch, they emit X-rays that are 100 times as bright as the surface of the sun. And we can do that? You bet. Not only can we do that that, but scientists know how to divert those rays toward Beethoven’s six hairs. When they meet at near the speed of light, they hit so hard they knock certain electrons out of place. There’s a blip of energy concerned with that and it’s specific to the types of atoms that are present.


Zap. 60 parts per million lead atoms, a hundred times above normal.


So, here’s a guy who’s been dead a hundred fifty years, way beyond the reach of an autopsy and, because a lock of his hair has survived as an authentic remnant of that long-gone life, we are able to tell that lead knocked him off. The chief suspect is the lead goblet from which he habitually drank wine. Lead poisoning is also compatible with most of his other ailments.


Astonishing, or ho-hum?


Depends upon what you grew up with. A while back I read that a new microchip has the capacity for 300 billion operations per second. How do they know? Who counts? Is it theory or can 300 billion actual things happen within the confines of a single second? Somehow or another, I accepted that news with much less astonishment than the story about Beethoven’s lead poisoning. It may have to do with my thirty-year-ago exposure to Apple Computer’s Lisa.


CzechbankI do know that here in post-communist Europe, banking used to be a multi-tasked chore. I’d have to take a tram to the bank, a beautiful baroque bank, to be sure. Then stand in a line to get to a teller, tap my toe in another line to get to a cashier and finally, an hour later, burst into the afternoon sunlight with the chore accomplished, at least for the moment. I now have an Internet-accessed account in the States, with a debit card that allows instant cash withdrawal at ATMs across Europe. Pretty neat. Except when my ISP is running slow.


The hour spent banking just a few years ago is now down to minutes on the Net. But minutes are somehow no longer fast enough. When my personal account page loads a tad slowly I lose patience and fidget through the time I’m wasting. Tap my fingers and frown. The agony of the wasted hour has become the grief of the wasted minute and, particle-accelerator or not, it’s never fast enough.


And that, to me, is truly astonishing.
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See Taking My Country Personally on my personal web site.