On a surface level, Scotch tape may seem like just about the most boring product in the world. Though it can be found in nearly 90% of American households and is used for everything from wrapping gifts to “repairing” ripped dollar bills, we'll forgive you for never being curious about its origins. But stick with us: this gets interesting! ... The story of Scotch tape is one of incredible determination and risk-taking -- and its invention was thanks to a banjo-playing, college-dropout, “misfit” engineer who believed in his ability to invent. ... He ended up not just pioneering Scotch transparent tape and masking tape, but revolutionizing the way that his company, 3M, treated creative people.
Conceptually, bioelectronics is straightforward: Get the nervous system to tell the body to heal itself. But of course it’s not that simple. “What we’re trying to do here is completely novel,” says Pedro Irazoqui, a professor of biomedical engineering at Purdue University, where he’s investigating bioelectronic therapies for epilepsy. Jay Pasricha, a professor of medicine and neurosciences at Johns Hopkins University who studies how nerve signals affect obesity, diabetes and gastrointestinal-motility disorders, among other digestive diseases, says, “What we’re doing today is like the precursor to the Model T.” ... The biggest challenge is interpreting the conversation between the body’s organs and its nervous system, according to Kris Famm, who runs the newly formed Bioelectronics R. & D. Unit at GlaxoSmithKline, the world’s seventh-largest pharmaceutical company. “No one has really tried to speak the electrical language of the body,” he says. Another obstacle is building small implants, some of them as tiny as a cubic millimeter, robust enough to run powerful microprocessors. Should scientists succeed and bioelectronics become widely adopted, millions of people could one day be walking around with networked computers hooked up to their nervous systems. And that prospect highlights yet another concern the nascent industry will have to confront: the possibility of malignant hacking. As Anand Raghunathan, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue, puts it, bioelectronics “gives me a remote control to someone’s body.”
Has a tech entrepreneur come up with a product to replace our meals? ... Rhinehart, who is twenty-five, studied electrical engineering at Georgia Tech, and he began to consider food as an engineering problem. “You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself,” he said. “You need carbohydrates, not bread.” Fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals, but they’re “mostly water.” He began to think that food was an inefficient way of getting what he needed to survive. “It just seemed like a system that’s too complex and too expensive and too fragile,” he told me. ... What if he went straight to the raw chemical components? He took a break from experimenting with software and studied textbooks on nutritional biochemistry and the Web sites of the F.D.A., the U.S.D.A., and the Institute of Medicine. Eventually, Rhinehart compiled a list of thirty-five nutrients required for survival. Then, instead of heading to the grocery store, he ordered them off the Internet—mostly in powder or pill form—and poured everything into a blender, with some water. The result, a slurry of chemicals, looked like gooey lemonade. Then, he told me, “I started living on it.” ... One of Silicon Valley’s cultural exports in the past ten years has been the concept of “lifehacking”: devising tricks to streamline the obligations of daily life, thereby freeing yourself up for whatever you’d rather be doing. Rhinehart’s “future food” seemed a clever work-around. Lifehackers everywhere began to test it out, and then to make their own versions. Soon commenters on Reddit were sparring about the appropriate dose of calcium-magnesium powder. After three months, Rhinehart said, he realized that his mixture had the makings of a company: “It provided more value to my life than any app.” He and his roommates put aside their software ideas, and got into the synthetic-food business.
Why did it take so long to invent the wheelbarrow? Have we hit peak innovation? What our list reveals about imagination, optimism, and the nature of progress. ... The Atlantic recently assembled a panel of 12 scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, historians of technology, and others to assess the innovations that have done the most to shape the nature of modern life. The main rule for this exercise was that the innovations should have come after widespread use of the wheel began, perhaps 6,000 years ago. That ruled out fire, which our forebears began to employ several hundred thousand years earlier. We asked each panelist to make 25 selections and to rank them, despite the impossibility of fairly comparing, say, the atomic bomb and the plow. (As it happens, both of these made it to our final list: the discovery and application of nuclear fission, which led to both the atomic bomb and nuclear-power plants, was No. 21 of the top 50, ahead of the moldboard plow, which greatly expanded the range of land that farmers could till, at No. 30.) ... Less evident from the final list is what I was fascinated to learn from my talks with many of the panelists. That is the diversity of views about the types of historical breakthroughs that matter, with a striking consensus on whether the long trail of innovation recorded here is now nearing its end.
"Our interest is in technology and engineering and design, and as a family business, we are able to keep the focus and philosophy there. We’re able to think very long-term, to develop technology that might be 20 to 25 years away. We can afford to do it. We can afford to make mistakes without anyone being sacked. We can take a long-term view of everything." ... Last year, the company broke ground on a more than $400 million technology campus adjacent to the Malmesbury headquarters. When it is completed next year, it will house 3,000 designers and engineers. Already, the company has brought in hundreds of software and computer hardware specialists and tripled the size of its engineering staff. The company currently funnels $2.5 million into R&D every week ... In coming months, the technology campus will serve as a launching pad for a range of new verticals, some of which Dyson has disclosed (robotics), some of which seem imminent (the Sakti3 investment appears to indicate a further interest in household electronics), and some of which are entirely classified. ... In the 15 years Dyson spent painstakingly perfecting the 360 Eye, a range of autonomous floor cleaners have entered the market, including iRobot’s Roomba and several models from Samsung. Dyson says that the 360 Eye will offer better suction, more advanced sensors, and longer-lasting battery life than its competitors. Still, in a sense, the device is illustrative of the challenges Dyson faces as it attempts to expand into categories already thick with deep-pocketed rivals: What happens when a company accustomed to being hailed for its innovations decides to play catch-up?
I’d like to tell the story of a paradox: How do we bring the right people to the right place at the right time to discover something new, when we don’t know who or where or when that is, let alone what it is we’re looking for? This is the paradox of innovation: If so many discoveries — from penicillin to plastics – are the product of serendipity, why do we insist breakthroughs can somehow be planned? Why not embrace serendipity instead? Because here’s an example of what happens when you don’t. ... By one estimate, the rate of new drugs developed per dollar spent by the industry has fallen by roughly a factor of 100 over the last 60 years. Patent statistics tell a similar story across industry after industry, from chemistry to metalworking to clean energy, in which top-down innovation has only grown more expensive and less efficient over time. ... Instead of speeding up the pace of discovery, large hierarchical organizations are slowing down — a stagflationary principle known as “Eroom’s Law,” which is “Moore’s Law” spelled backwards. ... Any society that values novelty and new ideas (like our innovation-obsessed one) will invariably trend toward greater serendipity over time. The push toward greater diversity, better public spaces, and an expanded public sphere all increase the potential for fortuitous discoveries.
Information moves, or we move to it. Moving to it has rarely been popular and is growing unfashionable; nowadays we demand that the information come to us. This can be accomplished in three basic ways: moving physical media around, broadcasting radiation through space, and sending signals through wires. This article is about what will, for a short time anyway, be the biggest and best wire ever made. ... FLAG, a fiber-optic cable now being built from England to Japan, is a skinny little cuss (about an inch in diameter), but it is 28,000 kilometers long, which is long even compared to really big things like the planet Earth. When it is finished in September 1997, it arguably will be the longest engineering project in history. ... we all depend heavily on wires, but we hardly ever think about them. Before learning about FLAG, I knew that data packets could get from America to Asia or the Middle East, but I had no idea how. I knew that it had something to do with wires across the bottom of the ocean, but I didn't know how many of those wires existed, how they got there, who controlled them, or how many bits they could carry. ... it behooves wired people to know a few things about wires - how they work, where they lie, who owns them, and what sorts of business deals and political machinations bring them into being.
What Pyrex-maker Corning is to glass, CoorsTek is to ceramics. Name any big American manufacturer and it probably buys CoorsTek parts. ... CoorsTek makes over 1 billion tiny parts for cars each year, used in brakes, air bags, mirrors and headrests. Its parts are on NASA’s space shuttles; its valves are used in the fountain machines at McDonald’s; its bulletproof armor protects U.S. soldiers; and its fake knees are helping an aging population keep moving. ... With sales of $1.25 billion, CoorsTek is the largest engineered-ceramics manufacturer on the planet. It is also one of the most profitable, with estimated cash flow margins of 27%. ... tapping into the vast clay deposits surrounding Golden to form a pottery company that first made dinnerware and then labware during World War I; the Germans had dominated that market beforehand but were embargoed from selling to Americans during the war. Thomas Edison was an early customer. ... The ceramics business helped to keep the family fortune afloat for nearly two decades. ... Another factor that makes CoorsTek different from most industrial giants is that it can completely change its product offerings year to year without checking in with a public board of directors or worrying how investors will respond. Three of its largest markets–armor and defense, semiconductor equipment and oil and gas–are roller-coaster industries, so it must constantly shift its focus.
Inside the 50-year quest to build a mechanical organ ... each year, only about 1 in 10 patients that need a transplant worldwide receives the life-saving surgery. ... Fewer than 2,000 patients have received an entirely artificial heart in the device's three decades of existence, and most patients haven’t used the machines for long. As with Williams, mechanical hearts are typically just a bridge to an eventual transplant. ... It’s unclear whether plastic and metal hearts can ever truly replicate their biological counterparts, which pump 2,000 gallons of blood every day, service 60,000 miles of blood vessels (more than double the circumference of the world), and work without a hitch year after year.
For decades, sewage has been treated and used for irrigating crops, parks, and golf courses, but making it fit for human consumption requires a much more rigorous filtration technology using polymer membranes. No thicker than a human hair, the membranes are at once delicate and durable. Using pores smaller than one-millionth of a millimeter, they’re capable of wiping out microscopic contaminants. ... the water division at Dow Chemical, he pulls in more than $1 billion in sales annually. The membrane market is growing more than 10 percent a year in part because of increasing water scarcity worldwide and ever more pressure to develop drought-proof water supplies from new sources. ... The whole concept of recycled sewage might be harder to swallow if there weren’t already so much sewage in the water sources we routinely draw from. ... the very reason chemists created these synthetic membranes decades ago is that, increasingly, humans have been contaminating the water supply. Industries have emerged, meanwhile, that need purer water for manufacturing. Most major players in the automotive, beer and wine, food processing, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, and semiconductor industries, for example, rely on water purified by membranes. ... recycling wastewater is about half the cost of desalinating ocean water: Both use RO membranes, but the salinity of ocean water is much higher, so it’s harder and much more energy-intensive to pump it through the tiny holes.
Elizabeth Holmes rarely slips out of character. When she responds to questions in an interview or on a conference stage, she leans forward, leg crossed ankle over knee in a half-lotus manspread power pose. She lowers her voice an octave or two, as if she’s plumbing the depths of the human vocal cord. Although she hates it being remarked upon, her clothing, a disciplined all-black ensemble of flat shoes, slacks, turtleneck, and blazer buttoned at the waist, is impossible not to notice. She adopted this uniform, as she calls it, in 2003, when she founded Theranos, a company seeking to revolutionize the medical diagnostics industry by doing tests using only a few drops of blood. ... “I wanted the focus to be on my work,” she says slowly and deliberately. “I don’t want to go into a meeting and have people looking at what I’m wearing. I want them listening to what I’m saying. And I want them to be looking at what we do.” ... She was only too willing to let that propel her through the business media’s star chamber, though she refused to let photographers use a wind machine to blow her hair. ... After several years of Holmes telling the largely unchallenged story of how Theranos intends to change the world, a blast of cold air came ... Most blood work in the U.S. is run on analyzer machines made by companies such as Siemens, Roche Diagnostics, and Olympus. The labs that buy these machines don’t need the FDA’s OK to use them, but the manufacturers need it to sell them. ... FDA clearance alone may not be enough to convince physicians that the tests can be used for all patients, according to John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine at Stanford who’s best known for his criticism of the way scientific research is conducted, in particular for a 2005 paper titled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.”
Producing hydrogen now costs less and emits less carbon than ever before. In part, that is the result of the United States’ newfound abundance of natural gas, the source of most of the hydrogen produced. But it is also the result of technological improvements in the process of "reforming" natural gas into hydrogen. It now costs around as much to produce a gallon of gasoline as it does to produce the energy-equivalent amount of hydrogen with natural gas. Meanwhile, another method of producing hydrogen-electrolysis, which uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen-has seen major cost reductions as well. What makes electrolysis particularly attractive is that when powered by renewable sources such as wind and solar power, it directly emits zero carbon. ... Hydrogen storage has also improved. Prototypes used to feature bulky containers that were retrofitted into vehicles designed for conventional engines. But the latest tanks save space by being better integrated into the design of a car and by safely storing hydrogen at a higher pressure, leaving more room for passengers and their belongings. This new generation of containers allows a car powered by hydrogen fuel cells to travel as many miles on a single tank as a gasoline vehicle can and take about the same amount of time to refuel. ... The obstacles to distribution are beginning to fall away, too. True, with relatively few dedicated pipelines in existence, hydrogen has yet to show up at the vast majority of gas stations. But there are promising work-arounds. Most of the developed world does have good natural gas distribution infrastructure, which could feed smaller reactors that produce hydrogen. Hydrogen could also be produced on-site through electrolysis. ... estimates of what it would cost to mass-produce fuel-cell systems have decreased tremendously, from $124 per kilowatt of capacity in 2006 to $55 per kilowatt in 2014. The durability of these systems has improved dramatically as well, and they now meet the expectations of customers used to conventional automobiles.
Now the canal is being reconfigured by a $5.5 billion expansion project scheduled for completion early next year. Approved by national referendum in 2006, the expansion effectively doubles the canal’s capacity by adding a new set of locks to accommodate larger container ships. Chambers with walls 50 feet thick are being grafted directly onto bedrock, like extensions of the isthmus itself. But the construction — monumental as it is — is only a small part of the story. More important is how the Panama Canal expansion is altering logistical relationships and generating new infrastructures throughout the American Hemisphere. ... Almost as soon as the referendum passed, port authorities from Miami to Lima began racing to complete their own expansion programs: dredging deeper shipping channels, installing larger gantry cranes, and building new container yards, in speculative efforts to compete for the ultra-large container ships that will transit the widened canal. An intense wave of anticipation ripples outward throughout the multi-continental network of waterways, ports, inspection stations, railroads, switching yards, highways, warehouses, and distribution centers that enable the global flow and movement of shipped materials. ... The expansion will reconfigure trans-American shipping in three primary ways. 4 First, a higher volume of goods will move faster between the two oceans, decreasing transport costs and altering the delicate financial calculus that determines global shipping routes. Second, as canal traffic increases, there will be a corresponding rise in transshipment, where goods are transferred to smaller ships that service cities with shallower harbors. The canal’s three ports — Balboa, Colón, and Manzanillo — will link distribution centers like Shanghai with smaller hubs like Barranquilla, Colombia, thus increasing Panama’s importance to regional shipping networks. Third, the expansion will provide an attractive alternative for shipping agricultural products from the interior United States to East Asian markets, elevating the Mississippi River corridor relative to the currently dominant overland routes to Pacific ports.
Somewhere between a fifth to a third of the million students graduating out of India's engineering colleges run the risk of being unemployed. Others will take jobs well below their technical qualifications in a market where there are few jobs for India's overflowing technical talent pool. Beset by a flood of institutes (offering a varying degree of education) and a shrinking market for their skills, India's engineers are struggling to subsist in an extremely challenging market. … According to multiple estimates, India trains around 1.5 million engineers, which is more than the US and China combined.
This is the face of nuclear development in the United States today: slow, over-budget, economically untenable. Yet the dream of a nuclear-powered society is still alive. Nationwide, we get about 20 percent of our electricity from nuclear. It produces the lion's share (64 percent) of our clean energy, provided that by "clean," you mean anything but fossil fuels. In addition to Watts Bar 2 there are four other reactors currently under construction in this country, signaling that perhaps America has a renewed interest in going nuclear. ... Look abroad and there's even more reason for nuclear advocates to be hopeful. China is leading a renaissance in nuclear energy: Today that country gets only 2.5 percent of its electricity from nuclear, but it has 21 reactors under construction, more in the works, and a growing business selling reactors to countries like Pakistan, Argentina, and the United Kingdom. This vigor marks a level of nuclear investment the world has not seen since the heyday of American atomic enthusiasm, when 58 reactors came online between 1965 and 1980. ... What happens next depends on whether nuclear boosters can solve the three key problems that have plagued American nuclear power, and left places like Watts Bar in perpetual limbo. ... nuclear power plants can generate tremendous amounts of energy. But while it's expensive to develop any kind of energy infrastructure, the cost of nuclear energy has not fallen over time. There is no Moore's Law in play here. ... Not only are China's reactors using a standardized design with some modular parts, but the entire construction process is performed by a dedicated crew that travels from reactor site to reactor site.
Driving itself is changing. Between electric and self-driving vehicles, ubiquitous sensors, network connectivity, and new kinds of transportation companies, everything is in flux: cars, how we feel about them, even roads and cities. This isn’t just hypothetical; you can use these things today. A radical phase shift is redrawing the map, literally and metaphorically. ... the new tools and technologies for moving around are interesting; put them together and you get something profound. Connect these new systems and individual networks to each other and they self-assemble into a transportation super-network. It’s decentralized, offers multiple routes from node to node, carries any kind of person or thing to any kind of place, and adjusts itself in real time. ... Sound familiar? Of course it does. That’s how the Internet works. ... To the new transportation supernetwork, you and I are just data. It doesn’t matter where we want to go; it just knows how to get us there—faster, cheaper, and utterly in control.
Here’s the funny thing about space: Ask people what they think about it and you’ll get every kind of answer. We should colonize Mars! We should stay home! We should look for life! Space, really, is a giant Rorschach. Into it we send rockets and satellites and space stations. But more than that, we send beliefs. About what is meaningful. About what is possible. About what is inescapable. ... space is back. Musk, Branson, Bezos. Each pursuing a pet project: Build reusable rockets and ultimately colonize Mars. Send ultrarich tourists on the world’s most expensive roller coaster. Mine asteroids. NASA, meanwhile, keeps plugging away at its science and robots. ... It’s hard to know how seriously to take any of it—there’s no focus. Yet the pace of space news keeps accelerating like a hailstorm on a roof. ... Spend time in New Mexico and you start to hear about the two space ages. The first is all Goddard and von Braun and big, lumbering, one-off rockets the size of skyscrapers that are built by big government and the military-industrial complex for hundreds of millions of dollars so we can send a tiny group of humans to the moon. The second space age is all about you. And it’s all about something you hear a lot these days—that the “barrier to entry” is now low enough that soon, to paraphrase Elwood Blues, you, me, them, everybody will get to space. ... I feel we’re back where the US space program was in the days of Ham. Hokey as it sounds, yes, this is the dawn of the second space age. And we are in a moment when we are struggling to figure it out. The good news is it’s not just NASA working the problem.
Immune Engineering: Genetically engineered immune cells are saving the lives of cancer patients. That may be just the start.
Precise Gene Editing in Plants: CRISPR offers an easy, exact way to alter genes to create traits such as disease resistance and drought tolerance.
Conversational Interfaces: Powerful speech technology from China’s leading Internet company makes it much easier to use a smartphone.
Reusable Rockets: Rockets typically are destroyed on their maiden voyage. But now they can make an upright landing and be refueled for another trip, setting the stage for a new era in spaceflight.
Robots That Teach Each Other: What if robots could figure out more things on their own and share that knowledge among themselves?
DNA App Store: An online store for information about your genes will make it cheap and easy to learn more about your health risks and predispositions.
SolarCity’s Gigafactory: A $750 million solar facility in Buffalo will produce a gigawatt of high-efficiency solar panels per year and make the technology far more attractive to homeowners.
Slack: A service built for the era of mobile phones and short text messages is changing the workplace.
Tesla Autopilot: The electric-vehicle maker sent its cars a software update that suddenly made autonomous driving a reality.
Power from the Air: Internet devices powered by Wi-Fi and other telecommunications signals will make small computers and sensors more pervasive.
It's a cloudy morning in August 2014 and, on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Avonmouth near Bristol, a team of engineers is at work on Thrust's successor. The car, Bloodhound SSC, marks a bold attempt to set a new Land Speed Record of 1,609kph (1,000mph) by 2016. If successful, it will not only mark the biggest jump in land-speed history, but will also be the culmination of a decade-long experiment in education and open engineering. ... "People ask me if Andy has an ejector seat," Chapman says, running his hand over the carbon-fibre monocoque that forms the car's cockpit and air intake for the jet engine. "He doesn't, because nobody has designed an ejector seat that can operate at Mach 1.4. If you ejected into the jet stream at 1,000mph, around 12 tonnes of force per square metre will hit you. This is the safest place for him to be." ... he MoD granted Bloodhound three EJ-200 test engines used for the Eurofighter development programme. As a result, 5,670 British secondary schools are now linked to the Bloodhound Education Project. A dedicated team runs workshops in which children can learn about physics and the car's engineering: Heathland School in Middlesex has managed to get a model rocket car to 462kph. Around the same time, Noble also decided to make Bloodhound open source, allowing anyone to download and critique the car's design plans. And, during the record attempts in 2015 and 2016, 12 cameras and more than 300 mounted sensors will stream live footage and data from the car, which anyone can follow online.
People tell me about miniaturization, about electric motors the size of the nail on your finger. There is a device on the market by which you can write the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin. But that's nothing. That's the most primitive, halting step. ... Why not write the entire 24 volumes of the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" on the head of a pin? ... Let's see what would be involved. The head of a pin is a sixteenth of an inch across. If you magnify it 25,000 diameters, the area of the head of the pin is equal to the area of all pages of the encyclopedia. All it is necessary to do is reduce the writing in the encyclopedia 25,000 times. Is that possible? One of the little dots on the fine halftone reproductions in the encyclopedia, when you demagnify it by 25,000 times, still would contain in its area 1,000 atoms. So, each dot can easily be adjusted in size as required, and there is no question that there is enough room on the head of a pin to put all of the "Encyclopaedia Britannica."
Since its release seven years ago, Minecraft has become a global sensation, captivating a generation of children. There are over 100 million registered players, and it’s now the third-best-selling video game in history, after Tetris and Wii Sports. In 2014, Microsoft bought Minecraft — and Mojang, the Swedish game studio behind it — for $2.5 billion. ... There have been blockbuster games before, of course. But as Jordan’s experience suggests — and as parents peering over their children’s shoulders sense — Minecraft is a different sort of phenomenon. ... For one thing, it doesn’t really feel like a game. It’s more like a destination, a technical tool, a cultural scene, or all three put together: a place where kids engineer complex machines, shoot videos of their escapades that they post on YouTube, make art and set up servers, online versions of the game where they can hang out with friends. It’s a world of trial and error and constant discovery, stuffed with byzantine secrets, obscure text commands and hidden recipes. And it runs completely counter to most modern computing trends. ... Minecraft culture is a throwback to the heady early days of the digital age. In the late ’70s and ’80s, the arrival of personal computers like the Commodore 64 gave rise to the first generation of kids fluent in computation. They learned to program in Basic, to write software that they swapped excitedly with their peers. It was a playful renaissance that eerily parallels the embrace of Minecraft by today’s youth. ... Today it costs $27 and sells 10,000 copies a day. (It’s still popular across all age groups; according to Microsoft, the average player is between 28 and 29, and women make up nearly 40 percent of all players.)
Over its 118-year history, Bechtel has arguably changed the face of the physical world more than any other company, anywhere. Here’s a short list of its signature projects: the Hoover Dam (completed in 1936), the Trans-Arabian Pipeline (1950), the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (1976), NASA’s Space Launch Complex 40 (1992), the Channel Tunnel (1994), and the Athens Metro (2004), not to mention Jubail in Saudi Arabia, where Bechtel has been overseeing the construction of one of the world’s largest industrial cities for over 40 years. It recently completed the Hamad International Airport in Qatar, which is built to eventually handle more than 50 million passengers a year (matching the traffic at New York’s J.F.K.). And with BrightSource Energy, it constructed the Ivanpah solar electric complex, a landscape of 350,000 heat-generating mirrors in California’s Mojave Desert that’s the largest solar-thermal plant on the planet. ... Bechtel is currently overseeing a major portion of Crossrail, the largest infrastructure installation in Europe—a network of tunnels and rail links in London that will connect the city to the outer suburbs. And the company has developed the first liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal in the continental United States. ... The parade of projects has made Bechtel one of the half-dozen largest privately held companies in the U.S., with $40 billion in 2015 revenue, outranking the likes of chocolate giant Mars and grocery chain Publix. ... In an increasingly competitive environment, the company needs to be able to attract the best engineers and managers to thrive. Today those elite recruits demand to understand the values of the companies that are wooing them. “Ours is a people business that depends on fielding the most capable project teams in the world,” he says. Like many other major private companies, Bechtel’s leaders feels they can no longer afford to hide behind its closely held status and let others control the narrative about its business. ... Bechtel must win on competence, not contacts. It’s all about a company’s ability to deliver a job on schedule and on budget, at the lowest cost.
The so-called cognitive revolution started small, but as computers became standard equipment in psychology labs across the country, it gained broader acceptance. By the late 1970s, cognitive psychology had overthrown behaviorism, and with the new regime came a whole new language for talking about mental life. Psychologists began describing thoughts as programs, ordinary people talked about storing facts away in their memory banks, and business gurus fretted about the limits of mental bandwidth and processing power in the modern workplace. ... This story has repeated itself again and again. As the digital revolution wormed its way into every part of our lives, it also seeped into our language and our deep, basic theories about how things work. Technology always does this. During the Enlightenment, Newton and Descartes inspired people to think of the universe as an elaborate clock. In the industrial age, it was a machine with pistons. (Freud’s idea of psychodynamics borrowed from the thermodynamics of steam engines.) Now it’s a computer. Which is, when you think about it, a fundamentally empowering idea. Because if the world is a computer, then the world can be coded. ... Code is logical. Code is hackable. Code is destiny. These are the central tenets (and self-fulfilling prophecies) of life in the digital age. ... In this world, the ability to write code has become not just a desirable skill but a language that grants insider status to those who speak it. They have access to what in a more mechanical age would have been called the levers of power. ... whether you like this state of affairs or hate it—whether you’re a member of the coding elite or someone who barely feels competent to futz with the settings on your phone—don’t get used to it. Our machines are starting to speak a different language now, one that even the best coders can’t fully understand.
In the US, municipal drinking water is protected by the Safe Drinking Water Act, which compels utilities to monitor things like microorganisms and the disinfectants used to subdue them. In 1998 the EPA tightened its standards on disinfectants, many of which can have their own toxic byproducts. One of the worst offenders is a classic: chlorine. Its main replacement, a chemical called chloramine (really just a mix of chlorine and ammonia), has lower levels of carcinogenic breakdown products, but it also makes the water corrosive—enough to eat through metal. ... Lead is insidiously useful. It’s hard but malleable, is relatively common, melts at a low enough temperature to be workable, and doesn’t rust. The Romans used it for plumbing—in fact, that word derives from the Latin word for lead, plumbum. Even the Romans noticed, as early as 312 BC, that lead exposure seemed to cause strange behaviors in people. But as Werner Troesken, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh, explains in his book The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster, lead pipes solved a lot more problems than they caused. The hydrologists of the 19th century knew that lakes and wells could harbor cholera; they needed large, clean bodies of water that they could pump into the city. Lead made those pipes possible. ... in 1991 the EPA instituted the Lead and Copper Rule, requiring utilities to check water regularly. The critical level has changed over the years as new science has come to light, but today officials are required to take action if lead exceeds 15 ppb in more than 10 percent of residents’ taps. The metric is utilitarian, scaled to spot trouble just before it turns into disaster. It’s a good rule, as long as utilities follow it.
It will take at least three years for Takata and other manufacturers to make enough air bags to replace the company’s defective ones. Because of their chemistry, Takata’s devices become less stable over time. That leaves millions of drivers with cars that could contain an air bag that’s like a ticking time bomb. ... Takata, founded by the Takada family in the 1930s as a textile maker, produced parachutes for the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. In 1960, Takata began manufacturing seat belts for Japan’s carmakers, which were leading the country’s industrial expansion. It was the only company whose seat belts passed the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) crash test standards in 1973. ... Air bags deploy in controlled explosions. Their designs are drawn from rockets and munitions. A former Honda engineer, Saburo Kobayashi, described Takada’s reservations in a 2012 memoir. “If anything happens to the air bags, Takata will go bankrupt,” Takada said, according to the book. “We can’t cross a bridge as dangerous as this.” Eventually, he relented. ... Lillie says he left Takata in 1999, partly because the company ignored his warnings about ammonium nitrate. He says Takata’s executives and workforce were unprepared to take on such a difficult design and manufacturing process. “Takata engineers claimed they had this magic,” he says. “No one else could figure it out, and they had.”