Out in Front: Virtuosos

October 1, 2013  - By
Cover: Curiosity By Philip Ball

Cover: Curiosity By Philip Ball

An occasional reader of these pages forwarded a clipping from a summer Wall Street Journal, a book review of the new title, Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything, by Philip Ball (University of Chicago Press, 465 pages, $35).

The book covers scientific advances logged in the 1600s, a century that “began with an essentially medieval outlook and ended looking like the first draft of the modern age.” However, the book’s description by WSJ reviewer Timothy Ferris quickly called to my mind the current status of investigation — practiced with an overlay of capitalism and market advantage-seeking — by, guess who, the GNSS community.

Not that I’m necessarily equating the scientists, engineers, and product managers who are responsible for most of the contents of this magazine with the “thousands of independent tinkerers, inventors, collectors and flat-out oddballs, the ‘virtuosos’ as they were called, [who] experimented with lenses, pumps, and biological specimens as much to satisfy their own inquisitiveness as to answer big questions.”

Far from it. Perish the thought.

And yet, and yet . . . .

I sat in a Denver airport cafe on my way home from ION GNSS+, chatting with a couple of industry captains about the way forward. We joked about how our kids will look at us as old fogeys — heck, they already do — tentatively feeling our way to indoor navigation. This method, that method? This augmentation, that integration?

The rising generations will simply take it for granted: indoor nav works everywhere, all the time, in the palm of your hand, or perhaps in the frame of your eyewear. How quaint were those early 21st-century inventors! Tinkering with different RF bands, trying to cobble together a solution.

The smiles on the faces of these industry captains as they proudly showed each other their devices, running their latest prototypes, and curiously examined their competitors’ versions, betrayed an enthusiasm, not just for market share, but for intellectual stimulation, the thrill of the chase, the joy of solving a problem. In that way, they were not unlike the 16th century crew, an assemblage that included, among many minor and forgotten names, Galileo (!!!), Kepler, Newton, Descartes, and Leibniz.

“The truth is that science works,” writes Philip Ball, “only because it can break its own rules, make mistakes, follow blind alleys, attempt too much — and because it draws upon the resources of the human mind, with its passions and foibles as well as its reason and invention.”

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About the Author: Alan Cameron

Alan Cameron is the former editor-at-large of GPS World magazine.