Novelty.

I was reminded recently of a 19th century invention that actually shocked people when it was installed in Harrod’s in London. It was an escalator. And apparently they gave out shots (drams?) of brandy at the top to calm people’s nerves after riding it (do you in fact ride an escalator?). I think nothing of escalators. I use physical stairs whenever possible, but if I have no choice, escalator it is. It’s just a thing that exists. I can’t imagine being shocked by it or surprised in the least. Maybe the first time I rode one as a kid? They are fun…always wanted to slide down the railing.

At one of the first ever screenings of motion picture in a theater, a train arriving at a station, the story goes that the audience leapt out of their seats with fright as the train in the scene was moving towards the camera, and potentially therefore off the screen. I can’t imagine having a reaction like that to a movie, something obviously a projection on a screen.

Not to say I haven’t flinched at a movie when something is scary or shocking or that movies aren’t powerful and can make you react in a very real way. But my sense is that I always know it’s just a movie; nothing will leap out of the screen (except emotion and feelings that can certainly cause a physical reaction, but that’s not most movies. Or even most things we encounter these days in a civilization that is based on science and technology.

I wonder what the modern equivalent of the train pulling into a station or the escalator is- or nearly anything that was electric/mechanical that came into being in a rapidly industrializing age. Certainly when Apple introduced the iPhone, everyone’s jaws dropped; it was just a huge leap from what existed before (I know, Blackberry had been around before, but this really opened things up to the average consumer). And yet still familiar some how; it was still a phone after all (though we seem to use them less as phones as they get more powerful and connected).

I am thinking about all of this because it is hard to wrap my head around the fact that there are still crazy things out there in the world to find- to invent. Could I invent one of them? Do I look for problems to solve in that way?

Discoveries have become routine and a bit blasé. Of course there was a breakthrough, those happen every week (even if some don’t turn out to be in the end because of the hype-machine that exists today).

What could I do that would wow the world? Am I thinking too audaciously? I am a scientist after all. I feel like I should be inventing new things- or realizing the eventual potential of my current work, but I don’t just now. Maybe I need to be engaged with it more. Think outside the boxes that I’ve put myself in the last several years.

There is natural resistance to some new technologies- and certainly rules need to be in place for responsible use of anything new. These ought to be based on sound science. And of course that requires a level of scientific literacy to come up with sensible rules, for citizens to be able to grasp enough to be OK with the technology and to adopt it. I think the latter is not nearly sufficient in the US these days with large numbers of people not very engaged with the scientific process, but also denying climate change, being anti-vaccines or anti-GMO. An individual vaccine might be bad (unlikely after all the development they go through) or an individual GM modification may be bad (again, there’s heavy regulation here too), but they need to be taken on a case-by-case basis.

I’m pretty amazed by modern communication technology, even if it can be frustrating. Computers, the Internet, smart phones- all pretty awesome things.

What’s the thing that would truly blow away a modern audience? I’m not sure. But I think it exists. Or will. I’m far less certain that I’ll be a part of it, but I’d still like to try I think.

Ever on and on.

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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