Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Manhattan Projects

How we do love them.

John McCain's offer of a $300 million prize to the inventor of the next generation of electric car batteries may be a political gambit, but it's still an idea worth pursuing. It also shows more leadership on the nation's energy needs than the current occupant of the Oval Office has shown in two terms.

... In an editorial this week on the need to increase the domestic oil supply, something else McCain has called for, we urged the creation of a Manhattan Project-like effort to wean the nation off its reliance on fossil fuels and toward cleaner, affordable and reliable sources.

I wish it could be that simple. But ordering up a new technology, even if price is no object, is unlikely to succeed.

There must be a foundation of knowledge before a new technology can be erected. And this work of foundation-building often is done by men or women working on the fringes of science, untangling mental knots out of sheer intellectual curiosity with no practical aim in sight. They are hardly the kind of people who would be appointed to high-profile government-sponsored committees, or who would go gunning for a $300 million prize. They usually don't work well on committees at all and don't think much about cash. And their work is the kind that's a sitting duck for Congressional yowls about "waste of taxpayers' money."

For instance, the original Manhattan Project grew out of the theories of Albert Einstein. When he did this work, he was a young Swiss citizen with an undistinguished academic record, who had failed to find a teaching job and instead accepted a position as technical assistant in the Patent Office in Bern. How likely would Congress, in 1905 or today, be to grant money to an uninspiring Swiss Jew who wants to use it to support himself while he imagines what the world would look like if he rode on a beam of light?

The Manhattan Project came about because scientific developments had reached a point where a concentrated effort to produce a fission "atomic" bomb was likely to yield a practical result. That's when Einstein, Teller, and Szilard gathered in July 1939 on Long Island and wrote to Roosevelt. But ultimately, it was nothing more than a practical application of what began with the work of the obscure patent clerk in Bern.

Carl Sagan, as part of "The Demon-Haunted World," wrote a digression into imaginary history. He wonders what would have happened if Queen Victoria in 1860 had sought some medium to communicate words, sounds, and pictures throughout her far-flung empire. She would have called together the most prominent men of science in the land, and they probably would have tried to develop something based on the telegraph, which was then the height of technology.

Then he describes J. Clerk "Dafty" Maxwell, the socially inept man who would in fact develop the equations that lead to radio and television. He makes it all too clear that Maxwell never would have come to the attention of Victoria's committee-choosers of 1860, much less been offered a seat at the table. And if he had been, it likely would have deflected his research and rumination down an unproductive path.

Maxwell wasn't thinking of radio, radar, and television when he first scratched out the fundamental equations of electromagnetism; Newton wasn't dreaming of space flight or communications satellites when he first understood the motion of the Moon. Roentgen wasn't contemplating medical diagnosis when he investigated a penetrating radiation so mysterious he called it 'X-rays'; Curie wasn't thinking of cancer therapy when she painstakingly extracted minute amounts of radium from tons of pitchblende; Fleming wasn't planning on saving the lives of millions with antibiotics when he noticed a circle free of bacteria around a growth of mold; Watson and Crick weren't imagining the cure of genetic diseases when they puzzled over the X-ray diffractometry of DNA ....

If the next energy breakthrough happens in our lifetimes, don't look for it from a New Manhattan Project. Such an effort would be useful for turning a breakthrough discovery to practical use. But getting there will require a first step of imaginative genius, probably from a mind you wouldn't suspect. For the U.S. to support that, it would have to be willing to pitch money into open-ended research by intellectually curious Poindexters who can offer no practical justification for their staring at the stars.