If you are
a student of baseball, you probably know the legend of the asterisk.
Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick announced that New York Yankee Roger Maris
would not officially break Babe Ruth's season record of 60 home runs unless he
accomplished it by the 154th game. The Babe's baseball season was shorter,
Frick reasoned, and Maris would have an unfair advantage.
Maris hit his 61st homer on the last day
of his longer season and sportswriter Dick Young suggested that Maris' record
be marked with an asterisk. Technically, it never happened - but the two
records were listed separately for years and the mental image of Roger Maris'
61 single season home runs* remains the symbol of the dreaded "yes, but ..."
we in engineering and technology have our own little asterisk problem.
I recently spoke to a group of young
students about careers in engineering. They needed to see us as driven
innovators who have changed the world, so I started running through a list of
the 20 greatest achievements of the past century compiled by the National
Academy of Engineering:
Water supply and distribution*
I didn't "see" the asterisks, but those
smart students did. ?And the questions started flying:
"How can electrification be the number
one achievement of the last century if more than 1.6 billion people live
why water supply and distribution makes it onto the list when 1.1 billion
people lack adequate access to water and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation?"
"Automobiles are number 2? Those
polluting, gas guzzlers?"
So much for chest thumping. How can we
feel satisfied after completing only part of the task?
Thankfully, a new breed of creative
engineers and scientists are taking on the challenge of removing the asterisks.
It's going to be tough:† large-scale
solutions won't come from translating current technologies. And we must be
prepared to work in communities with limited infrastructure and broken
economies, where legal systems don't protect innovation and where money is
frequently diverted from public improvement projects to individual pockets.
must be done -† and it will be. We are
already beginning to see real progress in developing on-site, low-power
electrical sources utilizing wind energy, solar power and biomass. And progress
in developing technologies such as highly efficient LED lamps can radically
reduce the cost of electrification in developing countries in the same way
cellular technologies speed the deployment of communication systems in
countries without phone lines and underground cables.
Segway inventor Dean Kamen and others are
working on low-power water purification systems that will change the lives of
millions of families across the globe who today rely on women and children to
collect water from centralized sources - often a day's walk away.
And the folks behind the X-prize have
just announced a global competition to create the first practical 100-mpg
equivalent car. Combined with a broad movement toward dramatic emission
reductions, this can provide the kind of independent transportation our century
Those 20th Century engineers made huge
strides. It's up to our generation to finish the job*.
Geoffrey C. Orsak is dean of engineering at SMU in Dallas, TX. He
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org