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One Thing Leads to Another

When I meet someone for the first time and tell them that I do research for a living, I know exactly what they are thinking - I don’t actually do anything, and I get paid for it.

One of the most audacious research efforts in recent memory, NASA’s Space Program led to the now legendary “small step for a man”, which should have been justification enough. Still, there were plenty of skeptics who thought the money for that very pricey E-ticket moon ride could have been better spent elsewhere. NASA officials were quick to point out that neither Tang nor a pen that writes in zero gravity would exist were it not for their research.

While I have yet to use my space pen, I did watch in wonder on that warm July night as mankind took a giant leap. I’ve come to realize that there will always be those who prefer real tangible things over experiences, regardless of how awe-inspiring they may be. Assigning a value to research will always be frustrating.

Each year thousands of carefully selected experts submit names for the Nobel Prize, viewed by many as the highest achievable honor for a researcher. By rule, perhaps to circumvent frustration, the names of the nominees are kept secret for 50 years. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences assumes responsibility for the final decision.

This whole process began back in 1901, when executors ended their 4-year argument over Alfred Nobel’s will and established his eponymous prize for those whose work most benefited humanity. Alfred’s estate was able to fund these awards thanks to his own rather prolific research efforts.

Nobel’s father Immanuel was an engineer/inventor who researched different ways of blasting rocks. The senior Nobel gained some notoriety building sea mines which were used to keep the British Navy from attacking St. Petersburg during the Crimean War. Hoping for his son to follow in his footsteps, he sent Alfred abroad to study chemical engineering, where the young man met Italian Chemist Ascanio Sobrero.

Sobrero is not a name most people recognize, but his invention – the highly explosive liquid nitroglycerin – is more familiar. At the time, most researchers considered it far too dangerous for any practical use, but Alfred and Immanuel remained undaunted and set out to develop a technically useful, commercial explosive. Several fatal blasts, including one which killed Alfred’s younger brother Emil, eventually led to a more stable substance which could be formed into rods and handled safely. Alfred’s research culminated in an 1867 patent for the new material which he called “dynamite.” At that time, it was a small step.

Even though explosives were an important tool of industry, critics credited Nobel with “finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.” Then as now, research and its products can be frustratingly difficult to evaluate.

Engineers had no difficulty appreciating this powerful new tool that could displace massive amounts of earth and rock and yet still be transported and handled safely. The timing of its release coincided nicely with the push of the US railroad system into new territories. It was much cheaper (and more awe-inspiring) to blast through mountains than to go up and over them.

Construction projects ranging from large metropolitan skyscrapers to the iconic Hoover Dam were made possible with dynamite, for which bedrock was no longer a showstopper. Modern materials like aluminum, copper and titanium could now be blasted from the heretofore unreachable depths of the earth. The lithium for our batteries and the silicon for our computers could be economically mined. It was a giant leap for mankind.

As the pundits had predicted, dynamite also found use as a weapon of war. This appalled Alfred who himself was a pacifist. He argued that once the armies of the world are capable of annihilating one another instantly, everyone would be so horrified as to abandon war completely. While he was wrong about that, Nobel did spend the remainder of his career improving dynamite and amassing the small personal fortune that eventually enabled the Nobel Peace Prize.

Dynamite is still around, but the economics of industry has driven its replacement by cheaper alternatives. The military has moved on to bigger bangs for the buck like nuclear weapons, the devastating power of which is also supposed to put an end to international warfare. So far, so good - at least for the nuclear part.

Research is founded on the premise that the best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas. It’s hard to know if what appears to be a small step for one researcher will one day be a giant leap for all of us. In the case of dynamite, reshaping the modern world began by blowing it up.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetWorkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.



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