Age of Surprise


For about 500 years, it seems that we’ve been living in an era of permanent surprise, of unanticipated discoveries like Columbus’ landfall in what he thought was an outpost of China. Ever since, we have been conditioned to expect the unexpected.

And around 1760, about halfway through our age, we entered the factory era that multiplied human capabilities so greatly that our numbers have increased 7-fold in 10 generations (three lifetimes laid end to end).  A torrent of ingenuity, both of inventors and hugely greater numbers of tweakers and users, has been unleashed. This ingenuity clearly is related to our (probably inborn) human delight in puzzles and toys. Which comes first, the toy or the tool?

In any case, ingenuity pulls us forward, even if we fear that the camera contains an evil eye or that the machines — by which most of us exist — will somehow brush us aside or crush us. One thinks of such films by Charles Eames as “Toccata for Toy Trains” or “Tops.”  As the latter film ends, an 18th century ballerina robot spins. Within, the robot’s music box plays, “If you want to dance, my dear Count, I’ll teach you how,” from Mozart’s opera, The Marriage of Figaro. In a way, the mechanical ballerina is singing a revolutionary tune on behalf of the rising middle class that built the modern world.

The robot observatories that humanity has been shooting out across the Solar System for two generations are extensions of human capability. This un-personed flotilla of exploration seems linked together by the theme of discovery, of adding not only to instrumental knowledge but also to a world-view for the big share of us who are not scientists and engineers. The last 50 years have been particularly rich in this unfolding of new worlds.

To understand what has been happening, we must recall the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of the late 1950s, whose importance has been understated, almost forgotten. It was undertaken primarily as a covered bridge between physicists of East and West, so that they would have means to talk about arms control in the immediate aftermath of the first H-bomb tests, such as the 15-megaton blast at Bikini on March 1, 1954. The satellites the IGY gave birth to made real the hope of sustained surveillance of strategic weaponry from above, realizing the 1955 “Open Skies” proposal and helping rein in the “worst case” mentality of the various opposing air forces.

As the satellites orbited Earth, their movements were tracked, and those measurements built up an increasingly precise picture of the distribution of mass within the earth. The IGY-born satellites also mapped the movement and temperature of the oceans and the motions of cloud masses, including storms, while giving us intercontinental communications on a vast scale. Meanwhile robots were used more and more to probe the depths of the oceans, and networks of seismographs employed signals from the shock of earthquakes to map the Earth’s interior.

We went into space in good part to look back at and understand our own planet, our own platform. In the process, as Carl Sagan remarked, we became the first generation to see worlds other than Earth. We can regard the planets and asteroids and comets as geophysical model organisms. And David Keeling’s IGY-inspired instruments to measure the buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide on the slopes of Mauna Kea and at the South Pole, sustained with great difficulty to the present, continue to give us the crucial insights into accelerated climate change –while continually strengthening our perception of the need to rapidly and radically recast the global energy industry. It should be accepted that such new knowledge is what we mean by civilization. This flood of insights underpins our humanity.

Xconomist and science reporter Victor McElheny of MIT is author of Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution (2003) and Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project (2010) Follow @

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