Has technological progress slowed over the last 50 years?

Justin Swanton

Loving the view from up here.
Joined
Aug 18, 2015
Messages
588
Location
Durban, South Africa
I really should shut up at this point but can't help responding to a few comments. As a preamble, the James Webb telescope apparently will have the ability to study planets in other systems directly and that will be fascinating. I don't know if it will be able to determine if a planet is actually habitable - probably not as so much goes into habitability - but it will add exponentially to what we know about those planets. Anyhow...
You are right that the laws of physics aren't going to change...

...but then they didn't change before, but this hasn't stopped us from developing technologies that utilise our ever-growing understanding of what those laws are and mean.

On the other hand, ignorance, and a lack of will to overcome our ignorance, can stop us dead in our tracks.
There have been a few discussions on the fact that for the last couple of centuries there hasn't been any lack of will to overcome ignorance. Things like the James Webb telescope demonstrate the opposite. The point is that theoretical knowledge was necessary before technology could advance. We had to have some idea of what electricity was before being able to harness it. I suggest that for the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries advances in theoretical knowledge were soon followed by practical applications, but from the second half of the 20th century until now theoretical knowledge has continued to advance but practical applications have fallen off. There is an enormous motivation for technological progress - our entire civilisation is founded on that progress - but it has nonetheless declined in more and more fields, and it's not possible to open new fields like antimatter powerplants as physics at that level is just too difficult to manipulate. A lot of i-dotting and t-crossing but how many dramatic breakthroughs?

I say, yes. I would find it boring to live in a world where everything was explained, where there is nothing new to be discovered, where there is no sense of wonder. I agree that there are practical things that humanity can and should expend time and effort on, but what may be the defining characteristic of mankind is the search for knowledge for which practical use is currently unknown and may never be discovered. Man has often wondered how it all began and now there is an opportunity to test the ideas, to prove and disprove, and fundamentally alter our understanding. The various experiments are evidence that men can actually do wonderous things, despite repeated evidence in our daily lives that we fall short in many of our most basic tasks. The quest for increased understanding of what may never be fully understood is what can give us hope.
Agree with most of this. There is a reason why ancient cartographers put "Here be dragons" in the blank spaces rather than "Here be more goats." Curiosity with its attached capacity for wonder is a powerful thing. Perhaps rather peculiar since modern science as a complete explanation for the Cosmos rather kills curiosity. If all reality is built just on some properties of atoms and subatomic particles then what's the big deal? I suspect though that there is more behind projects like the telescope than simple curiosity. More and more I see an imperative to demonstrate that our technological future is bright and that there will be nothing we can't do, sooner or later. It sounds cynical, but IMHO there is a huge amount of PR behind these projects, aimed at cementing confidence in our techno-industrial civilisation.

Entropy still exists. An orbiting satellite is in a constant state of free fall; without some sort of altitude boost, all satellites fall to Earth. Energy conversion and storage degrade over time. Satellites are frozen in their technical capabilities; what was launched years ago falls short of what we could ask of the devices today. The ones launched today will fall short in answering the questions of the future.
Sure. A satellite orbiting close to a planet with an atmosphere will eventually be dragged in by that atmosphere, but I wasn't thinking of that. And yes, power sources like RTGs eventually run out of power. The point isn't that satellites run forever in space, but that they have often run longer than expected. And of course they don't self-upgrade. They just last longer.
 
Last edited:

Ursa major

Bearly Believable
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Aug 7, 2007
Messages
22,739
Location
England
There have been a few discussions on the fact that for the last couple of centuries there hasn't been any lack of will to overcome ignorance. Things like the James Webb telescope demonstrate the opposite. The point is that theoretical knowledge was necessary before technology could advance. We had to have some idea of what electricity was before being able to harness it. I suggest that for the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries advances in theoretical knowledge were soon followed by practical applications, but from the second half of the 20th century until now theoretical knowledge has continued to advance but practical applications have fallen off. There is an enormous motivation for technological progress - our entire civilisation is founded on that progress - but it has nonetheless declined in more and more fields, and it's not possible to open new fields like antimatter powerplants as physics at that level is just too difficult to manipulate. A lot of i-dotting and t-crossing but how many dramatic breakthroughs?
Science (both theory and practice) is much wider than physics, you know... for which we should, during a pandemic caused by a novel virus, all be very grateful.
 

Justin Swanton

Loving the view from up here.
Joined
Aug 18, 2015
Messages
588
Location
Durban, South Africa
It’s already a struggle for many fields that basic research does not have the funding it needs nor attracts enough researchers. Mainly due to the question you ask: what’s the use of it. But if all research was specialized it would leave gaps in our understanding that down the line will hinder further steps. Plus the fact that specialized research often means proprietary results while basic research tends to be shared for the betterment of all. However, we’re approaching the dreaded political part of this discussion so I’ll leave it there
I've not done a comprehensive analysis of this and a comprehensive analysis is what it needs, but my impression is that research requires more and more high-grade technology to make any significant advances and those advances are less dramatic than what we were getting two centuries or a century ago. I mean, a single individual in the early 19th century could largely figure out what electricity was and then invent an electric motor, all by himself. Now you need a multi-million dollar lab or more to push theoretical knowledge in physics any further. The motivation for knowledge is certainly there (a $4,4 billion collider?) but could the hesitation be that too little of too little use is being discovered? Actually this needs a book to analyse it properly.

Edit: I just realised this is becoming repetitive. Probably better to stick to what's happening with the telescope.
 

Justin Swanton

Loving the view from up here.
Joined
Aug 18, 2015
Messages
588
Location
Durban, South Africa
What hesitation would that be? And how do you know that too little of too little use is being discovered?
Just answering Aknot. I propose that the last major advance in technology was the successful miniaturisation of computers in the 1980s onwards, leading to the internet and iphones. For technology that physically improves our lives - transport, power, homes and home appliances and so on - I'm not aware of anything spectacular since 1970 or so, but theoretical research in physics has made major advances since that date.

I can't really speak with confidence re medical research. How many major breakthroughs have there been as opposed to using older methods to cure newer diseases, such as developing new vaccines? mRNA tech is new, but it will be years before its effectiveness and safety have been confirmed.

Anyhow I'm quite happy to get back to the telescope. :)
 

Ursa major

Bearly Believable
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Aug 7, 2007
Messages
22,739
Location
England
Just answering Aknot.
Really? He didn't mention hesitation, just something we can see in just about every sphere of life, i.e. that there's never enough money around to do everything we'd like to see done. And because we see that in just about every sphere of life, the lack of money in any one sphere can impact the availability of money in one or more of the others.

So what we're really seeing is that, building on the individual work you mention and all the work done between then and now (sometimes by individuals, often by teams), there are so many things to investigate further that countless decisions are made as to which research gets the money (sufficient or not) and which doesn't. Oh, and I don't think Aknot mentioned insufficient discoveries being made either.

So other than what you can think of, where do you get the idea that "too little of too little use is being discovered"? Are there records made of the number of discoveries being made? Are there records of how many of those being made are of little use (with a definition of what "little"** and "use" mean in context)? And are these records, if they exist, comprehensive? The last seems unlikely: as Aknot did mention,
specialized research often means proprietary results
which means that only those doing the research, and the companies funding them, know what's been and being done and how successfully. (Note that a lot of companies do not report their failures, whether in research or not, and they often don't report their successes if a discovery takes time to be turned into something saleable, i.e. there's no point Company A telling the competitors about something that they might put on the market before Company A can.)


** - Some of the decisions made about what use something depends on how much money it makes (or could make). A drug that can be used to cure or ameliorate a condition that affects a few dozen, or a few hundred people, but whose development costs hundreds of millions, or more, is not going to find enough (or any) buyers to make that drug break even (and that's without worrying about who it might be tested on before it goes on sale). On the other hand, the drug's potential recipients would find it of great use, if their condition were to be life-threatening.
 
Last edited:

Justin Swanton

Loving the view from up here.
Joined
Aug 18, 2015
Messages
588
Location
Durban, South Africa
Really? He didn't mention hesitation, just something we can see in just about every sphere of life, i.e. that there's never enough money around to do everything we'd like to see done. And because we see that in just about every sphere of life, the lack of money in any one sphere can impact the availability of money in one or more of the others.
I suspect (rather hamstrung here as I don't have detailed statistical data) that there are problems with funding research because more advanced and hence more expensive tech is needed to push research further.

Take the James Webb telescope. It can see further in infrared than the Hubble can in visible light, but whereas the Hubble cost about US$200 million to develop and construct, the James Webb cost US$5 billion. It's a bit like the Concord. The practical limits of commercial flight seem to be subsonic jets (in terms of speed and range the most recent Airbus jets don't do significantly better than the 1952 Comet). Going supersonic with the Concord was technologically feasible, but it was far more expensive and could not be made to be profitable, so the Concord was eventually scrapped. With research funding there seems a limit to how far governments are willing to go. Take the Superconducting Super Collider - it was to be much larger and more capable than the largest existing colliders, but was cancelled because it cost too much. That's hesitation (or rather regret after US$2 billion had been spent of a budget of US$10 billion).

So what we're really seeing is that, building on the individual work you mention and all the work done between then and now (sometimes by individuals, often by teams), there are so many things to investigate further that countless decisions are made as to which research gets the money (sufficient or not) and which doesn't. Oh, and I don't think Aknot mentioned insufficient discoveries being made either.
Again, research these days seems largely to require lots of staff, lots of hi-tech equipment and truckloads of money. Only so much money in govt coffers. The days of the solitary researcher making a momentous discovery in his garage are long gone.

Re insufficient discoveries, I think I'm on firm ground in affirming that there have been no real technological breakthroughs in the last 50 years - with the exception of information technology - that have materially improved our lives. We're no nearer the Jetsons' lifestyle today than we were 50 years ago. Take something as basic as food. Corn production in the US had been a steady 26 bushels per acre from when records first started in the 1800s until the mid 1930s. From that point, double-cross hybrid corn increased the yield by 0.8 bushels per acre each year. In the 1950s, genetic improvements in hybrid corn, fertilizer, and other developments increased the yield to 1.9 bushels per acre each year, and that increase has been constant until the present. Notice that it is the absolute increase that has been constant. The proportional increase has dropped off steadily. Later genetic techniques, especially techniques developed in the 1990s, have not affected this increase and the proportional decline continues up to today.
 

Ursa major

Bearly Believable
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Aug 7, 2007
Messages
22,739
Location
England
(rather hamstrung here as I don't have detailed statistical data)
So you do have either not-very detailed, or not-at-all detailed statistical data, then?

Care to share?


(Frankly, it's rather a relief not to face the prospect of having to look through detailed data -- at practically any level of detail -- when even a very high-level view is likely to involve seeing rather a lot of data.)
 

Justin Swanton

Loving the view from up here.
Joined
Aug 18, 2015
Messages
588
Location
Durban, South Africa
So you do have either not-very detailed, or not-at-all detailed statistical data, then?

Care to share?
I've done it elsewhere and I don't think anyone wants me to rehash it here. What is needed is a history of scientific and technological progress over the past four centuries, detailing how theoretical breakthroughs in physics, chemistry and biology accompanied technological progress in those fields, and then evaluating the importance of each theoretical and practical advance to determine how quickly and for how long a particular field of technology moves forward and whether later advances are as substantial as earlier ones. I tried doing it for a couple of select areas like motorised and aerial transport but it would be a huge amount of work to do it for every branch of technology and I doubt anyone would want to read the end result anyway.
 
Last edited:

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Nov 23, 2002
Messages
25,156
Location
UK
We're no nearer the Jetsons' lifestyle today than we were 50 years ago.

Well, I wouldn't rush to gauge scientific progress by old cartoons, any more than I would use the Flintstones to judge archaeology. :D

In the meantime, I've moved these posts from the JWST thread to keep it on topic.
 

Foxbat

None The Wiser
Supporter
Joined
Jul 24, 2003
Messages
9,120
Location
Scotland
Quantum computing and fusion may be breakthroughs that we make in the next few years.;)

I (in my completely uninformed view) feel what is actually being described here is the law of diminishing returns. It’s not that there won’t be new discoveries, just that they get more difficult to make the deeper we delve into a subject.
 

Serendipity

A Traditional Eccentric!
Joined
Feb 16, 2013
Messages
1,244
Location
In Existence Somewhere
'No significant technological breakthroughs in the last 50 years' - sorry I had to groan at this statement from above, because I could write a textbook in response to this. So I'll stick to a few points.

1) The internet was invented 1st January 1983 (give or take a year or two) - which is c. 38 years ago - and look where that has got us (this forum among other things).
2) One of the issues why many people think there are a lack of technological breakthroughs is the lack of popular science magazine communications that catch the people's imaginations. The science fiction publishing industry seems to have given up this function some time ago (not sure there's a UK SF publishing industry any more - but that's another issue).
3) Quantum computers are already producing results - just they're not to problems that we've been trying on our more conventional computers because the technology deals with fundamentally different problem types. The trouble is it's the commercial people doing it, so you won't get much in the way of publicity about what's going on.
4) As for the laws of physics - we need to extend Maxwell's standard electromagnetic equations to include magnetic monopoles, which are required to exist because discrete electrostatic charges exist (derived through quantum physics), but we don't because there is little in the way of potential applications at the moment.
5) I'd better stop here...
 

Montero

Senior Member
Supporter
Joined
Jan 2, 2008
Messages
2,823
Location
Up the clum
My suspicion is that many of the game changing discoveries for humans are happening in biology and medicine - and in part this is based on the development of far superior scanning technology such as MRI. With any field, the big advances happen when the tools are developed - and bootstrapping up on the tools can take decades.
A few examples - none actually involving MRI
1. Watching documentaries on surgery at Addenbrookes and Papworth at the moment - and they are now capable of doing a two day surgery for a very complicated cancer.
2. An article I posted over in the Science and Nature forum earlier - about work that has shown how very differently people's bodies respond to the same food, due to different gut biome.
3. The discovery a decade or so back that some stomach cancers were due in part to intestinal bacteria that tended to be passed down through families through contact, and bumping them off was a great, and easy, way to stop the stomach cancer that had been running in the families.
4. Shockwave therapy - I've been seeing osteopaths, physios and podiatrists on and off for the last 30 years. A new development is shockwave therapy which essentially does microdamage to the site of an old injury and prompts the body to regard it as a new acute injury and so get to work on healing it, as opposed to it being an old chronic injury that the body was ignoring. Made a massive difference to me.
5. Bacteriophages - and why the heck we are not adopting them in this country I do not know

I am also seeing a lot of new material coming out on animal behavior, with science finally getting away from "ooh no, no anthropomorphism" and actually looking at animals emotions (which is different from anthropomorphism, but an...ism was putting people off from talking about animal emotions).
 

Aknot

Active Member
Joined
Dec 30, 2021
Messages
35
Thread title should have a click bait warning ;D

Without a definition of what a major scientific breakthrough is I guess it can always be stated. Does finding Higgs-Boson count as much as having a proverbial apple drop on your head? Creating a nuke versus Crispr? Landing a rocket safely for reuse after sending a payload into orbit compared to just getting it up there? A thousand songs in your pocket compared to the gramophone?

I would say there are plenty of major breakthroughs. Actually, I would guess there are several times as many happening in the last 50 years compared to the 50 years prior. But also that there are so many that we don’t know of them, don’t understand them and/or can’t see them as major because of the amount of them.
 

Foxbat

None The Wiser
Supporter
Joined
Jul 24, 2003
Messages
9,120
Location
Scotland
Perhaps the problem with new technologies is not the lack of but that they enter our lives and become so intertwined so quickly that we don’t even regard them as technological breakthroughs.

Ask a youngster nowadays and they would probably claim that owning a mobile phone is an inalienable human right but, thirty years ago, nobody would have cared.
 

Dave

Non Bio
Staff member
Joined
Jan 5, 2001
Messages
20,990
Location
Way on Down South, London Town
Ask a youngster nowadays and they would probably claim that owning a mobile phone is an inalienable human right but, thirty years ago, nobody would have cared.
When my son was about 8 or 9 he couldn't believe that personal computers didn't exist when I was his age. He thought I was lying to him.

We couldn't function without the internet and mobile phones today, especially during the pandemic. All the old-fashioned ways of doing what we do with phones, tablets and laptops every day have largely disappeared - address books, phone books, landlines and telephone boxes, bank branches, cheque books, local newspapers (with TV guides and weather reports), cameras and photograph albums, calculators, vinyl and CDs, VHS, DVDs.....
 

Foxbat

None The Wiser
Supporter
Joined
Jul 24, 2003
Messages
9,120
Location
Scotland
It reminds me of one of my (younger) work colleagues. He was fussing about with his mobile one lunchtime and looked a bit peed off, When I asked him what was wrong he replied that somebody he’d been trying to contact wasn’t answering the text he’d sent. I then asked him if he’d thought about actually phoning the person. It turned out that he hadn’t thought of that.

I suppose it makes me a grumpy old man that I can now say with all sincerity ‘youngsters nowadays‘ :D
 

Dave

Non Bio
Staff member
Joined
Jan 5, 2001
Messages
20,990
Location
Way on Down South, London Town
Let me say first that I don't agree with the premise of this thread at all, but even so, and as a kind of aside (and sorry if this is now too much of a tangent), but I think the problem that some of us... cough! ....older members of SFFChrons might have is that "50 years ago" is living memory to us, and therefore it doesn't seem long ago to us. It doesn't seem like "history" at all, and more like "current affairs", however, the world has changed a great deal even if we ourselves have not.


I've been to this museum in Aarhus a few times and it has a 1974 exhibition area. It is amazing how much has changed since the 1974 - party line (shared subscriber) telephones, 8-track cassette tape recorders, photographic developing equipment, voice recorders, "pocket" calculators that were the size of a brick, Atari video game consoles, TV rental shops, bell-bottom jeans...

We also have a thread at SFFChrons to reminisce: Old Tech thread
 

Top