Plus ça change

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An article in the New Scientist suggests that the pace of human innovation may appear rapid for short periods, but over the longer term is generally quite slow. Why? Simple, we keep on forgetting things.

Apparently technological innovations are as prone to extinction as woolly mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers. More innovations and technical advances have been lost than kept through history – forcing the proverbial wheel to be re-invented many times.

Scattered populations, expertise confined to a few and lost records mean great ideas go missing. Indeed science has yet to find a way of ensuring everything we know today isn’t lost, when today’s digital memories and readers become obsolete.

There is evidence though, that the pace of discovery and innovation has indeed increased in recent centuries – due to words, books and libraries. Ideas are saved more easily thanks to greater population density and stronger networks for knowledge transfer – the Internet just being the latest and greatest.

But in recent decades it seems that some forms of innovation might actually be slowing down. How could that be?

One reason is young people have to spend so much time learning what has already been discovered, they have no time to think of anything new. Most schoolchildren will never get beyond 19th century physics and chemistry, as that’s what they’ll be tested on. But maybe a grounding in the ‘Great experiments’ isn’t such a bad idea. It’s certainly fun.

On a strangely reassuring trip down memory lane this morning, we went to look at a school for my son. A charming older boy showed us round a large campus with a nice well used, ‘lived in’ feel.

And memories of my own school days were reignited by the whiff of a Bunsen burner and two boys messing about in goggles with a tripod, gauze and beaker, setting fire to things in the chemistry lab.

Happy days. I remember Russell Cross’s wooden pencil case being surreptitiously filled with sulphuric acid and his pens and pencils dissolving nicely before he and the teacher could save them.

Then the occasion that entire back lab bench managed to change into their P.E. kit and retake their places – apparently attentive for a good five minutes – before being rumbled.

Finally the bungled experiment where nitric acid went in the beaker instead of hydrochloric, generating thick brown vapours and an evacuation – to general delight – as the potion was stuffed in the fume cupboard to boil off poisonously.

Each generation needs its turn at dissecting bull’s eyes, making hair stand on end with the van de Graaf generator and of course setting fire to things with Bunsen burners.

There may not be much scientific innovation but messing about in the lab is an important rite of childhood passage. In this safety conscious age many schools don’t let kids get ‘hands on’ with the old science favourites. I liked today’s school all the more for still letting them.

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