While there are many sources of energy on Earth, for most of human history the ability to tap them has been very limited. Of course, humans had learned early in their history to release the energy in wood by burning it, and used fire to shape the environment, changing thick forested land into open savanna. Using fire to cook turned indigestible seeds and tubers into nutrients. Humans also exploited other sources of energy like wind and flowing water to sail boats, grind grain and saw wood. Never-the-less, most of the work: fields plowed, grain harvested, canals dug, ships rowed, blocks of limestone moved, was accomplished by human and animal muscle.
The amount of energy available began to increase dramatically about 400 years ago when western Europeans began to exploit the energy stored in coal, then petroleum and in time, uranium. The potential amount of energy was massive but exploiting it was challenging: coal was buried deep in the ground; there were poisonous and explosive gases in the mines; mines flooded.
Fortunately, around the same time attitudes about knowledge had also begun to change. The traditional belief had been that the world as we found it was fixed, anything worth knowing was to be found in the ancient texts. Things not found in the texts were not worth knowing. The new attitude that we now call STEM was that the book of nature could be read, using reason, observation, and experimentation. In contrast to the old attitude that poverty, disease, and war were simply a natural part of the real world, the new attitude was that problems could be fixed if we had enough information; problems could be solved by seeking the right knowledge.
The inquiry practices that led to solving the challenges of extracting and employing the energy in coal, oil, and uranium, the harnessing of wind, water, solar, energy also helped expand our understanding of nature's code and using that knowledge to build our STEM-empowered world.
The detailed story of energy and STEM is found in Richard Rhodes' new book Energy: A Human History. (Rhodes, 2018)
Rhodes promises the reader a "four-hundred-year voyage with some of the most interesting and creative people who ever lived," the scientists, inventors and engineers who shaped the world we live in. When you finish your voyage, Rhodes predicts, "you'll know more about what they did and why and how they did it."
We are familiar with what these people did--the science, technology, engineering. Rhodes' book supplies both the stories behind that science, technology and engineering as well as how it has been done. The combination of the what and the how provide a picture of the workings of STEM.
Networks: Inventive Powerhouses: The challenges of extracting new sources of energy and making it useful created networks of individuals. Admission to one of these networks that were built around reason, observation and experimentation did not require formal education, a noble title or a wealthy family. In Jenny Uglow's study of the 'Lunar Men', five English friends (Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), James Watt (1736-1819), Josiah Wedgewood (1730-1795), and Joseph Priestley (1733-1804)) whose work resulted in the discovery of "new gases, new minerals, and new medicines...they create objects of beauty and poetry of bizarre allure," she observes that "this powerhouse of invention is not made up of aristocrats or statesmen or scholars but of provincial manufacturers, professional men and gifted amateurs---" (Uglow, 2002, p. xiii)
Sharing facts, ideas, technologies: These "powerhouses of invention" work because ideas, facts, technologies are shared across networks, and even across time. The development of Watt's "atmosphere engine" in 1795 was based on ideas, facts, and technologies from (among others) Evangelista Torricelli (d. 1647), Otto von Guericke (d. 1687), Robert Boyle (d. 1691), Denis Papin (d. 1713), Thomas Savery (d. 1715), Thomas Newcomen (d. 1729), and John Wilkinson (d. 1808). (Rhodes, 2018, "Raising Water by Fire")
A new idea, fact, technique became like a steel to another's flint, sparking off new ideas, facts, techniques and technologies.
New capacities spawn new inventions: Watt's engine did not use the power of steam to move its piston. It was an "atmosphere" engine that worked by rapidly cooling the steam in the drive piston with a spray of cold water, condensing the steam back to water and creating a vacuum that drew the drive shaft downward.
Using steam to actually drive the piston required high pressure boilers that would create what engineers at the time called "strong steam." But high pressure steam required boilers strong enough to contain the higher (greater than 14.7 pounds per square inch: one atmosphere) pressure. The credit for the first "strong steam" engine goes to Richard Trevithick, Jr. (1731-1833) who built a high pressure steam engine, put it on iron wheels and ran it on iron tracks, under the slogan "Catch me who can." Railroads, as we know them, soon followed. (Rhodes, 2018, p. 69)
Science, technology and engineering...for the worse and...: From the end of the Second World War, humans lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation, the dark side of modern physics.
Going into the third decade of the 21st century, the predictions about "the greenhouse effect" made at the start of the 20th century are becoming confirmed. Earth's atmosphere is warming as a result of our use of fossil fuels with the consequence that the patterns of Earth's climate are changing. The facts presented in the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) suggest that Climate Change "looms over civilization with much the same gloom of doomsday menace as did fear of nuclear annihilation in the long years of the Cold War." (Rhodes, 2018)
Science, technology and engineering...for the better: As Rhodes observes, "Far from threatening civilization, science, technology, and the prosperity they create will sustain us well in the centuries to come. They are the only institutions human beings have yet devised that consistently learn from their mistakes. " (Rhodes, 2018, p. 343)
By describing the history of energy in the modern world in relation to "people, events, times, places, approaches, examples, parallels, disasters, and triumphs" Rhodes invites all of us to participate in the debates about how we proceed to meet the persistent challenges in creating a world for ourselves and our children.
Rhodes, R. (2018). Energy: A Human History.
Uglow, J. (2002). The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.