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Rozumiem
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The theme of the 23. Science Picnic is Machines and Us

Where & when

PLACE: “PGE Narodowy” Stadium, Warsaw

DATE: 11 May 2019 (Saturday)

Machines and Us

Ötzi, the natural mummy of an “ice man”, found in the late 20th century in the Alps near Hauslabjoch, carried travel equipment and weapons, the purpose and use of which did not differ much from those used by the soldiers of Piast dukes’ armies in the 10th century. Somebody had to make these artefacts for our “mountaineer” somewhere around 3,500 years before Christ. I did not use the world “manufacture” on purpose, because Ötzi’s bow and arrows, his “boots" and clothes, were – most probably – all made in a few huts, where Ötzi and his relatives lived. However, no matter who made these objects more than five thousand years ago, they had to use tools.

Ever since the discovery of the first tool – a bone club, which some of the readers may remember from the famous scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick, where our “ancestor” throws it upwards while staring at a black obelisk – one of the distinguishing features of our ancestors, among many probable competitors in the process of the evolution of species formation, was the making and using tools more efficiently. These ancestors, the makers of these tools, were the first scientists of our civilisation, since the tools were created as a result of learning about the laws of nature and basic natural properties of materials available in the most immediate, slowly expanding environment. Someone living in an area where obsidian was available, who decided to use it as a blade, opened the development path leading to today’s homes with photovoltaic glass walls. Without primitive levers, wedges, as well as a wheel and axle – simple machines that we learn about in physics classes at school – the creation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Sphinx in Egypt would be impossible. In fact, people would be unable to erect the skyscrapers with their absurd height and splendour in today's oil-rich Emirates.

As time went by, we learned to build better and better tools, which slowly turned into machines, taking over more and more of our work; however, we haven’t always succeeded in this. The Roman Empire has had some failures with harnessing the power of water. The army of Pompey destroyed the water mills of Mithridates, because the soldiers did not understand what they were and how they worked, but in the supposedly dark Middle Ages, mills on the Loire, on the Seine and in many other places allowed for people to be freed from hard work at the quern. The progress, however, was met with some concerns. History has seen the phenomenon of growing fear of machines, such as the Luddite movement in England at the beginning of the 19th century.

This fear of machines was – and still is – the result of ignorance of not only the laws of nature, but also of the laws governing social phenomena. Machines created as a result of the development of science and engineering, its "executive branch”, have made our world wealthier, healthier and safer. So far, this fear always turned out to be unjustified in the entire history of mankind on Earth, although it was willingly fuelled by cynical manipulators, such as the leaders of the contemporary anti-vaccination movements.

Today, we are a civilisation of machines. We live in such a deep symbiosis with them that we do not even notice that fact. The complex, multi-storey bridge, constructed a few kilometres up the Vistula River from the “PGE Narodowy” Stadium is a machine. The processor in your smartphone or the pacemaker of one of the visitors at our Picnic is also a machine. The efficient operation of Siekierkowski Bridge is ensured by the useful work of thousands of simple machines, which, for example, compensate for the vibrations of the entire structure caused by thousands of other machines crossing the bridge – our cars. In a smartphone or a pacemaker, this useful work is performed by electric charges moving in complex transistor structures.

These new machines, which we call computers regardless of whether they calculate something for us or not, have become so indispensable in our lives that we care about their food – electricity – as strongly as we care about our own. For some reason, however, these days we are suddenly beginning to be afraid of newly constructed machines, which Karel Čapek called robots in his play RUR, which premièred in the 20th century. They are not here yet, but some people are already raising an uproar like 19th-century Luddites. Or maybe they are right?

Throughout centuries of development, we have learned how to create, use and maintain machines, convinced that we will not be able to survive without them. We will show this to the visitors of the 23rd Science Picnic next year.

Łukasz A. Turski