Chain reactions spreading ideas through science and culture

David Krakauer writes: On Dec. 2, 1942, just over three years into World War II, President Roosevelt was sent the following enigmatic cable: “The Italian navigator has landed in the new world.” The accomplishments of Christopher Columbus had long since ceased to be newsworthy. The progress of the Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, navigator across the territories of Lilliputian matter — the abode of the microcosm of the atom — was another thing entirely. Fermi’s New World, discovered beneath a Midwestern football field in Chicago, was the province of newly synthesized radioactive elements. And Fermi’s landing marked the earliest sustained and controlled nuclear chain reaction required for the construction of an atomic bomb.

This physical chain reaction was one of the links of scientific and cultural chain reactions initiated by the Hungarian physicist, Leó Szilárd. The first was in 1933, when Szilárd proposed the idea of a neutron chain reaction. Another was in 1939, when Szilárd and Einstein sent the now famous “Szilárd-Einstein” letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt informing him of the destructive potential of atomic chain reactions: “This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable — though much less certain — that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed.”

This scientific information in turn generated political and policy chain reactions: Roosevelt created the Advisory Committee on Uranium which led in yearly increments to the National Defense Research Committee, the Office of Scientific Research and Development, and finally, the Manhattan Project.

Life itself is a chain reaction. Consider a cell that divides into two cells and then four and then eight great-granddaughter cells. Infectious diseases are chain reactions. Consider a contagious virus that infects one host that infects two or more susceptible hosts, in turn infecting further hosts. News is a chain reaction. Consider a report spread from one individual to another, who in turn spreads the message to their friends and then on to the friends of friends.

These numerous connections that fasten together events are like expertly arranged dominoes of matter, life, and culture. As the modernist designer Charles Eames would have it, “Eventually everything connects — people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.”

Dominoes, atoms, life, infection, and news — all yield domino effects that require a sensitive combination of distances between pieces, physics of contact, and timing. When any one of these ingredients is off-kilter, the propagating cascade is likely to come to a halt. Premature termination is exactly what we might want to happen to a deadly infection, but it is the last thing that we want to impede an idea. [Continue reading…]

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