Science Fiction Project - Free Culture
Analog - All editorials - John Wood Campbell
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OUR CATALOGUE NUMBER...
There's a great tendency on the part of a human being to say "It always seemed to me..." or "I never did believe that..." or the like. It's self-evidently true that the above statements cannot be true of any individual, in any instance whatsoever - not in the sense implied by the individual. Since no individual has existed forever, "always" is inherently inapplicable. Since no individual carried on active philosophical evaluational processes at birth, or immediately thereafter, "always" in the sense of "as long as I have existed" is never applicable.
But we're so ready to pretend that we haven't changed! The basic implication of such statements is simply "I am as I have been and as I will be... and furthermore, I'm right, have been, and will be".
As a long-time science-fictioneer, I run into that characteristic in its acute - and acutely irritating - phase. The fellow who "knows" that science fiction is nonsense - the one who, in 1941, "knew" rockets larger than Fourth of July fireworks were nonsense, but who, after reading that V2s were landing one-ton lots of high explosive in London, instantaneously changed polarity, and "always knew" rockets could do that sort of thing. But who, as of 1944, "knew" atomic energy was nonsense - and as of August 8th, say, 1945, "always knew" we could do it.
The "interval of wonder" is astonishingly small in most people. Of course, eliminating it does make one feel smug, well satisfied with one's deep and cogent understanding of all things. But it seems to me you miss a lot of the fun of sensing the change around you! You know, no matter how fast you're going, you have no sense of motion; it's only the acceleration that you can detect. There's no kick to steady motion - the lift and thrill comes in detecting the great driving thrust that produces the change of speed.
A world of no change is boring beyond endurance - yet it seems to me that a lot of people are missing the immense and joyous stimulus of living in a period when the world is changing, accelerating, faster than it ever did before - by a sort of mental black-out. They blank out the acceleration period, like a rocket pilot who passes out during the 8g thrust of the take-off, regaining awareness only after the change of speed has been made.
We're only half aware of the immense thrust of civilization toward a higher speed of accomplishment. The change of level is something even the science-fictionally alerted individual can readily miss - because the acceleration is on so broad a scale. The non-science-fictioneer is apt to skip that interval of wonder completely - and it's not too easy for the science-fictioneer to find all of the intervals of wonder, the moments of mental acceleration when we recognize that a vague hope, a half-dream, has become a reality.
Dr. John Pomeroy, who's done a number of articles for the magazine, is an Argonne National Laboratory researcher - and far from sending me tidbits of classified information, has simply kept me aware of the standard catalogues and brochures of the industrial companies that offer various industrial components to interested markets. That supply of catalogues and standard commercial offerings I find far more exciting and intriguing. Talking about going to the Moon, or to Mars is interesting - but what counts is the day someone publishes their annual catalogue offering "'our catalogue number...' for the four-man scout, satisfactory for Lunar exploratory work, or asteroid prospectors; not recommended for gravitational fields exceeding fifty kilonewtons".
The booklets Dr. Pomeroy has sent along, during the last few years, are the "our catalogue number..." offerings that have reduced the science-fiction of 1940-45 to specific commercial models.
The Collins Radio Company offers, in their catalogue listings, radio receivers and transmitters intended for amateur and commercial installations - and also a cyclotron, standard commercial model, a packaged item ready for delivery and installation on order.
Just about twenty years ago, the cyclotron was the newest and furthest frontier of extremely advanced laboratory research. General Electric, I understand, has an eighty megavolt betatron they are about ready to offer as a packaged unit for industrial application. Their smaller, twenty-five megavolt model is recommended for X-ray quality control inspection on heavy castings and forgings.
I got into theoretical physics back in 1928, because science fiction had convinced me that that was the field wherein the great advances would be made in my lifetime - atomic energy and the like. In 1932, the neutron was discovered, the cyclotron work began, and the real surge to crack the nucleus got under way.
The mass spectrograph was, at that time, a rare and wonderful device, possessed by a few of the most advanced university laboratories. Mass spectrographs are now offered on an "our catalogue number..." basis by a number of firms. Recording electro-spectrophotometers are offered for industrial labs, "in gray crackle or other finish. File space for storing recordings or other data built into the cabinet. A handsome piece of equipment in any laboratory".
Yes - the fact that it does automatically, and in a matter of seconds, something advanced university laboratories couldn't accomplish in weeks a few decades ago is not enough; by rights the technician properly holds that it should also be good looking, convenient, and make efficient use of space. Mass spectrographs, on the other hand, are advertised as useful devices for detecting leaks, and for production-line quality control inspection.
Robots are offered by several scores of companies; they aren't tin men, since no one wants a tin man for any valid industrial use, so they're called "automatic process control equipment" or the like - or "digital computer systems". But the computing machine that was, not more than a few years ago, a thing of rare wonder is now a standard catalogue item from dozens of companies. A recent issue of Scientific American carried a series of articles on cybernetics - but the advertisements that went with the articles were even more revealing. A popular, newsstand sale magazine carrying advertisements for standard trade devices that would be described only in science-fiction magazines as little as fifteen years ago!
The last batch of commercial catalogues I got from Dr. Pomeroy contains one that is still at least a little bit on the interval-of-wonder boundary. It's from Radiation Counter Laboratories, Inc., of Nucleonic Park, Skokie, Illinois - their "RCL Illustrated Price List No. 12". One of the first items offered, I see, is "A Handbook On Small Research Nuclear Reactors for Universities & Industry" $6.00 a copy (10% discount on 5 copies or more).
Then there's the "Oak Ridge Compensated Ionization Chamber, RCL Mark 17 Model 2" a neutron-sensitive instrument used in pile controls. Outside dimensions 3 feet long, by 3% inches diameter. $1,345.
They do not as yet, apparently, have a complete small nuclear reactor installation, with all control equipment and installation costs, offered as a packaged installation as a catalogue item. That may be a year or two more - but not much longer, I imagine.
I can't yet get quotations on that four-man scout ship - but I can, if I want, get quotations on eighty megavolt X-ray equipment, or small atomic power plants. Of course, we always knew that would happen, didn't we?