Let's finish the job

Geoffrey Orsak
 Geoffrey C. Orsak

If you are a student of baseball, you probably know the legend of the asterisk.

In 1961, 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 …”

Well, 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:

  1. Electrification*

  2. Automobile*

  3. Airplane

  4. Water supply and distribution*

  5. Electronics

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 without it?”

“Explain 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.

Yet it 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 demands.

Those 20th Century engineers made huge strides. It's up to our generation to finish the job*.