Monday, March 6, 2017

We Need More ‘Useless’ Knowledge

The Chronicle of Higher Education
Robbert Dijkgraaf
March 2, 2017

On April 30, 1939, under the gathering storm clouds of war, the New York World’s Fair opened in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Its theme was The World of Tomorrow. Over the next 18 months, nearly 45 million visitors would be given a peek into a future shaped by newly emerging technologies. Some of the displayed innovations were truly visionary. The fair featured the first automatic dishwasher, air conditioner, and fax machine. The live broadcast of President Franklin Roosevelt’s opening speech introduced America to television. Newsreels showed Elektro the Moto-Man, a seven-foot tall, awkwardly moving aluminum robot that could speak by playing 78-r.p.m. records, smoke a cigarette, and play with his robot dog Sparko. Other attractions, such as a pageant featuring magnificent steam-powered locomotives, could be better characterized as the last gasps of the world of yesterday.

Albert Einstein, honorary chair of the fair’s science advisory committee, presided over the official illumination ceremony, also broadcast live on television. He spoke to a huge crowd on the topic of cosmic rays, highly energetic subatomic particles bombarding the Earth from outer space. But two scientific discoveries that would soon dominate the world were absent at the fair: nuclear energy and electronic computers.
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