- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2005

The National Science and Technology Medals were handed out this week here in our nation’s capital. The president had 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 via 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 as larger chips in our automobiles. They will notify us when our cholesterol count or some enzyme count signals danger. They will warn us a knee is wearing out and needs replacing. 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 hard to fake. They depend more 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 so. One awardee is Bob Metcalfe. He invented Ethernet, 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. Mr. Metcalfe tells an amusing story demonstrating the awards are not completely free of politics. In 1973, he wrote the memo that invented Ethernet. Three years later he and David Boggs had the system up and running. Yet his practical application of the theoretical system he dreamed up in 1973 actually provoked not applause among his engineering colleagues but vexed controversy. Their response to the functioning Ethernet was that it was impossible. Their reason? It was impossible “in theory.” As Ethernet’s use spread, there were still engineers who scoffed at it as a theoretical impossibility. That reminds me of the joke Ronald Reagan used to tell on the expense of economists. A certain policy, say tax cuts, works in practice. “Yes,” the economists might say. “But does it work in the theory?” Tax cuts, incidentally, and the efficiency of American markets explain the long period of vigorous economic growth the country has enjoyed since the early 1980s. Yet there is another element, often mentioned by Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. That is the productivity growth stemming from the surge in scientific and technological innovation celebrated this week with the National Science and Technology Medals. The event brought together stars far worthier of our awe than any the world of entertainment might summon to dinner. I actually got to meet Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, the men who took Metcalfe’s Ethernet and made it Internet. I suspect the economic effect of these three men has amounted to hundreds of billions of dollars. What is more, there is no sign the innovations are ending. R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor in chief of the American Spectator, a contributing editor to the New York Sun and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute. His latest book is “Madame Hillary: the Dark Road to the White House.”

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