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Tech Q&A

David E. Nye

Describe your latest project.
Technology Matters pulls together questions and problems about technology that have intrigued me since college. I never could have written such a book for promotion or tenure, because it is too speculative and too open. It does not tell the reader what to think. I do not pretend to have definitive answers to the questions I pose. But I do give well-considered opinions. Here are examples of contentions I defend: necessity is quite often not the mother of invention but the reverse; the uses of technologies are generally unpredictable; people use them not to create uniformity but diversity; individual devices usually are designed to be safer over time, but the risk of accidents does not therefore decrease; military technologies have made warfare increasingly safe for soldiers and fatal to civilians; we are deeply encapsulated in a cocoon of technological conveniences, but we still want to use new machines to get closer to nature. This book continues a dialogue — decades of conversations — with my father, a mechanical engineer who had a keen interest in history. I dedicated it to him, and was glad he got to see the completed draft before he passed away at the end of 2004.

What inspires you to sit down and write?
I am not sure "inspiration" is quite the right word. I like to work away at some vast puzzle that eventuates in a book. When I finally send one off to MIT Press, a part of me feels empty and purposeless until I latch on to a new problem. I always say that I am going to take a break and just read a while for pleasure, but usually I am well into a new project by the time a new book is printed. Nothing else is as much fun as researching and writing. While I am excited Technology Matters is out, I have already begun a social history of electricity in the US since 1940, which will be my seventh book with MIT Press.

What do you do for relaxation?
I love to sing. It started in a boy's choir, but I have also been in a barbershop quartet, Glee Club in college, a bit of rock music, several years in a Renaissance group while in grad school, etc. Music takes my mind completely off work and puts me in touch with other people in a special way. I also like baseball, though I was no great shakes as a player. Being born in Boston it is my (now) happy fate to follow the Red Sox.

What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
Math was both best and worst. On national tests like the SATs I always scored in the 99th percentile, but I was bored in class, found the homework repetitious, and got mediocre grades. My [other] best subjects were history and English.

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
Actually, the historian and autobiographer Henry Adams. The last time I was in London I made a point of seeing the building where he lived and worked for his father, the American Ambassador during the Civil War. His third person autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, is still well worth reading. Yet it took me years to get round to writing about Henry Adams — finally in 2003 I devoted a chapter of America as Second Creation to him.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
My answers will not surprise. Shakespeare — assuming that I could be inside his head, it would be fantastic to experience his verbal fecundity, mental quickness, and sympathetic imagination, to understand other people as well as he did, not to mention understanding the plays so much better than I do now. And, Einstein — it would be amazing in two ways: I would effortlessly acquire perfect German for a day, and I would briefly get a much better grip on how he saw the universe.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
Perhaps I should join the many champions of nanotechnology or genetic engineering, but I opt for solar energy. If we can find a way to make more efficient solar cells without using too much energy to do it, and I think we are close, solar power could greatly reduce global warming and get people to live within finite energy needs that they could largely supply for themselves. They might also at times contribute to a decentralized grid. Cheap solar cells would make people producers as well as consumers of energy, which is how it was for most of human history. If nations get to make that choice, however, there is no guarantee that Americans will do so. One of the things that has fascinated me in my research is that cultures do not always adopt technologies quickly or choose well.

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