Michael Collins, 1930-2021, NASA astronaut, and command module pilot for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, said, “There is but one Earth, tiny and fragile, and one must get 100,000 miles away to appreciate fully one’s good fortune in living on it.”

Consider all that has happened in Collins’ lifetime. The Great Depression ended with World War II. In 1933, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Act created a public corporation “To improve ... navigability and to provide for ... flood control.” The TVA also provides electricity for 153 local power companies serving 10 million people. Jet airplanes and radar were developed. Rockets were improved beyond the fireworks that had been invented by the Chinese centuries before. Space exploration began. Transistors were invented. Nations no longer declared war, but fought anyway, as Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan conflicts show. Weather forecasting was greatly improved. Atomic power became practical, nuclear waste and global warming were recognized as problems. The internet changed communication, and rumor became more powerful than truth.

We have lived in an era of great, rapid changes, and great confusion. What made all that happen?

Perhaps it’s partly because there is a large population of people with time available to work on inventing, refining and developing things. Call it freedom of time. A lower percentage of one’s time is needed for basic survival.

As has been said, we’re standing on the shoulders of giants. Previous technological development has become a base for more refined development. Humans can learn from their predecessors, and don’t have to start all over.

Electricity is available to millions. Paper-and-pencil math was supplemented by slide rules, calculators and computers. Relatively slow electrical relays were often replaced by faster vacuum tubes, transistors and integrated circuits.

In 1965, an engineer, Gordon Moore observed that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles about every two years. That trend has continued, but is not considered to be a scientific law. Still, computers become much more powerful and cheaper.

It’s a bit like ancient people gathering wood to cook their food before they developed axes, saws, chain saws and eventually natural gas and electricity for cooking. Less personal time is needed to attain the same end. The earth supplied the resources.

Farm fields are managed with huge gang plows behind a single tractor.

Progress makes things cheaper and more convenient. Candles to Light bulbs to LEDs to high brightness LEDs. Notice that flashlights now use very small batteries?

After World War II, some German rocket scientists fled to the U.S., and some to Russia. They were crucial to developing our, and Russia’s, rocket science. They had been inspired by Robert Goddard, an American whose country felt he was just playing with toys, and so, ignored him. There is a book, “Rockets Jets, Guided Missiles and Space Ships,” written for adolescent readers, and published about 1951, that talks about the earliest rockets invented by the Chinese, the first liquid fuel rocket by Dr. Goddard and German World War II rockets, plus other developments. It’s still inspiring.

What things hinder humankind’s progress? We have not changed the tendency of people to believe just about anything. There is a story of an “expert” at the patent office saying that everything that can be invented already has been. Apparently that is fiction, and its origin goes back to an 1899 joke in the comedy magazine, Punch. But it’s often presented as fact.

A major development in human progress is that we’re beginning to realize the shortcomings of some of our technology. Nuclear waste, plastic trash and global climate change must be dealt with. A nameplate on a 1927 car proudly shows a factory belching smoke as a sign of progress. Science is beginning to tackle technology’s negative effects. You’ve heard of the “dust bowl” of the 1930s?

So much development happened in one man’s lifetime. But, as knowledge increases, fewer people want to make the effort to understand the existing science. Instead, most of us believe cars will start, airplanes will fly, and that electric service will always be available. We don’t take time to care why or how things work, or what science says.

Human indifference may well be the limiting factor to progress.

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