Science and the City and the City in Science

William O. Baker

May 6, 1987

 The city of New York has excelled in the origins of science, in the generation of science, as it has in most other things, - nearly everything else except perhaps the growth of potatoes. So in an era of competition there is the need for New York to compete with its own existing record of scientific and technical creativity. This may be even harder than continuing to excel in comparison with the rest of the world, which itself is moving fast on the frontiers of scientific research and development. So we should remind ourselves of & the scale of the intra competition as well as the inter-competition around the globe. Science and even most technology do not bear trademarks, although they can be the basis for patents and proprietorship (quaintly they call it "intellectual property"). So there has to be a certain sense of quality, of scale of values, in assessing our future prospects in terms of the present record of what the city has done in this century of science and engineering – and accordingly what it should be expected to do in an ever more competitive future.

So as to the past, we recall that in the Telephone Laboratories of 463 West Street, now the artists' residence known as West Beth, Davisson and Germer did the Nobel-award experiments showing that particles could act as waves. This meant that the Einstein - Heisenberg - Sommerfeld - Dirac quantum mechanics was valid wave mechanics, that Isaac Newton's wonder about whether light had corpuscles, made sense and the 20th Century concepts of energy and matter were reasonable.

Over on the East Side, at the Rockefeller Institute, now the Rockefeller University, Avery, McCarty and Mac1eod, discovered that the molecular determinant of genetics, indeed of genesis, was DNA. And the Nobel Committee has likewise assigned a flock of awards growing out of that original finding.

So altogether, the physical and life sciences, symbolized by these bare examples of a large array of discoveries, have done alright in New York. The universities and entrepreneurial industries of the boroughs are lively still. Metrotech over in Brooklyn, the great biomedical centers, Columbia-Presbyterian on the West side, and the York Avenue colony including Cornell-NY Hospital, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Rockefeller University on the East side, with distinguished affiliates north and south like NYU and Bellevue, continue to be world class in their humane skills to help and scientific probes to study the human body.

Further concerning the physical sciences we should. enjoy reporting on the elegant excursions inside the atom at Columbia University, and around its nucleus in the chemistry and physics of ions and reactive particles as carried on at Columbia and NYU, as well as at CUNY and elsewhere. We should like to speak about the massive aggregation of atoms in polymers at the Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, and of the wonderful teaching of science in the constellation of colleges and universities and especially high schools and other academies of the city of New York.

But rather we shall remark on the new science frontier. It is composed of information and communication science - that joins humankind to the new automata and digital machines, and that deals with human behavior as a psycho-biological activity that is analysed scientifically by models and massive statistics. These in turn are derived from computing machines, social scientific phenomena such as economics, political dynamics, demographics, and perhaps above all, what few (thankfully growing) scientific insights we are gaining about education and teaching and learning.

Now these elements of science and its derivative technology are curiously and inevitably congruent with cities, especially a vast metropolis. They are rather different manifestations of science than the traditional (and essentially correct) conception of an Einstein envisioning in a quite isolated study how unified field theory might look. These elements of communication and information science are pursued quite otherwise than by a Dirac working with the Patrician dignity of an European academic, developing the framework of quantum theory for which (as we said a moment ago), Davisson provided the crucial experiment.

In contrast, these new scientific frontiers we are denoting flourish where there are considerable communities of intimately interacting, sophisticated, and often interdisciplinary scholars and students. Although we are barely now seeing the outlines of such new science, we are sure that it interlinks biobehavior, sensing and perception (which are the essence of teaching and learning) with the way cities and communities live. For this urban living is by talking and writing and organizing and communicating, - all of this aided by modern machines. The hardware of these machines, of course, arose from the physical science we talked about. Therein, prime discoveries from this metropolitan region, although not from the City itself, include the laser, the transistor, the solar cell, the magnetically durable super-conductors, the photonic circuits. But the software and firmware that make such machines operate, offers still surging challenges for scientific structure - we hardly have even the framework for a science of it.

And then beyond these scientific aids, we face the vast unchartered realm of mind and matter. We now can see that this is no longer only a place for legend, mystique and often dogma. Rather, careful, extensive shrewdly-designed research is showing new major parameters relating human capacities to economic and political systems and to new ways of thinking about trends and behaviors of whole populations. For instance, we note the growth and expansion of multidimensional scaling, discovered in our metropolitan region laboratory by Shepard and his associates almost a quarter-century ago. We note the present titles of variety of definitive papers in the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science![1][2]

But despite this wave of change, the usual consideration of science in New York Is in terms of an illustrious history of technology derived from engineering and invention. Now that is altogether proper because it is the source of much of the traditional economy and also of the extraordinary physical structure of the city. Accordingly, In the proclamation of the mayor celebrating the week of April 5-11, 1987 as Science and Technology Week, significant references were to this base, including Fulton's steamboat, Edison's early electric power station, and a variety of achievements recognized in many museums and learning centers around the city. However, even in these early periods, there were hints of this new wave of the information and communication sciences and technology, often in a form in which an invention was publicly demonstrated or even commercially applied. For example, Morse’s telegraph was introduced in the City, and was one of the first early long-distance telephones by Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. And, of course, the first video, the first television was done from our Bell Laboratories at 463 West Street by Ives and his associates. (It is interesting that New York's most recent science and technology displays - the Infoquest of our Company at 550 Madison Avenue next door to the computer chronology in the IBM Building does, however, open the curtains to the stage of a drama of machine and humans complementing each other). This works in the mind as the earlier era of energy and mechanism has done for motion. On this stage, we believe the City of New York can play a starring role, a few of whose lines we may now read, as samples of the decades to come. And let us be mindful throughout that these forerunners of great science for the next Century will be not only of vast economic import for the city, through the technology which they promote, but will also be of deepest intellectual thrust, they may involve, the very essence of mentality and humanism whose mystiques, have so long eluded really consorting with physiological and psychological science.

The first thing to say in seeking lines for the drama we imply is that New York has ever been a city of languages, and the other symbols and signs of knowledge. Then, nearly four decades ago, in our Laboratories then partly moved from 463 West Street but still reflecting the insights of Nyquist, Hartley, and their associated telephone researchers, Claude Shannon proposed a generalized communication/information theory. This boldly asserted that all knowledge could be represented by sufficient combination of dots and dashes, or plus and minus signals. This was just like the coding of Morse’s telegraph, except capable of being done then in millions, and now in millions of millions, times a second. Still other aspects of new circuitry and electronics, in turn derived from new physics and chemistry, provided machines to do this logic and memory millions of times faster and more fully than the typical forty bits a second of Input and output of perception and expression of the human organism. These artificial systems lack practically everything else that the human organism takes for granted, like intuition and imagination and sophisticated correlation, and supposedly feelings. But they have over the past decades enabled universities and colleges and, schools, and businesses, shops, the arts and professions, the industries in both their laboratories and factories throughout the city of New York, to deal with complications and communications, to deal with numbers and data, that were beyond human reach.

Now these abilities and their mechanisms do indeed, as we said before, fit most smoothly and are stimulated most creatively in the huge combinatorics, the vast complexity and diversity of the mega metropolis. So we are suggesting that the 21st Century science of the city of New York be animated by these themes. In such science, from pre-kindergarten to post-doctorate stages of their lives, all our citizens can learn in some measure - adapted to their abilities and interest - about a new frontier of science and technology based on handling information. It will call us toward representing and spreading knowledge, on organizing and enlightening every component of our society. So this frontier will provide the City of New York yet another resource, like its schools and hospitals, like its subways and shops, its towers and tunnels.

In images alone, this offers new dimensions to a city that is proud in being in advertising, and media, and artistic and design, the leader in the world. For through the elements of images called pixels, we have created many new tracks of information (even cinemas in which mathematically geometric figures are portrayed through a fourth dimension) But particularly useful are ways of synthesis in which the image, the figure, represents numbers portraying changes in time or changes simultaneously In space and time that have eluded even the cleverest movie directors or video producers. And these changes and depictions may be for entertainment, or commercial design or show the quality of the air and water or the pulse and breath of a patient whose heart Is being restored.

And it is this way with virtually everything that our populace in this city does. The science of information and communications is truly the peoples’ science, partly because its technology, so widely used by everyone as language and learning and reading and writing and organizing and cooperating, is still so little understood! Thus there is a gateway and an invitation for every person to think new thoughts and see new visions about what causes behavior and cognition and humanism. For while this has always been done under the name of common sense, we now know and steadily are seeing that It can be-done in a larger frame, that the tactics and strategy of science so influential In so many doings of this century can in the next century be used also for these most compelling and challenging matters of human affairs.


[1] N. M. Bradburn & Lance J. Rips, “Answering Autobiographical Questions: The Impact of Memory and Interference on Surveys,” Science 236, 157 (April 10, 1987. (This is a scientific treatment of the new tool of democracy – the opinion poll.)

[2] Benjamin M. Friedman, “New Directions in the Relation Between Public and Private Debt,” Science 236, 397 (April 24, 1987. (This is a social science based account of the most pervasive economic issue of our nation.)