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Cellphones As a Fifth-Order Elaboration of Maxwell's Theory (ieee.org) 129

schwit1 shares a report from IEEE Spectrum that reflects on the "Stages of Electronics" based on James Clerk Maxwell's theory: Now that the world has become addicted to portable electronics, billions of people have come to see the companies providing these gadgets as the most innovative, and the people who head those companies as the most exalted, of all time. "Genius" is a starter category in this discussion. But clever and appealing though today's electronic gadgets may be, to the historian they are nothing but the inevitable fifth-order elaborations of two fundamental ideas: electromagnetic radiation, the theory of which was formulated by James Clerk Maxwell in the 1860s, and miniaturized fabrication, which followed Richard Feynman's 1959 dictum [PDF] that "there's plenty of room at the bottom." Maxwell was a true genius. The history of science offers few examples of work as brilliant as unifying electricity, magnetism, and light as aspects of a single phenomenon: electromagnetic waves. As Max Planck put it, "in doing so he achieved greatness unequalled."

Vaclav Smil writes via IEEE: "As I pass the zombielike figures on the street, oblivious to anything but their cellphone screens, I wonder how many of them know that the most fundamental advances enabling their addictions came not from Nokia, Apple, Google, Samsung, or LG. These companies' innovations are certainly admirable, but they amount only to adding a few fancy upper floors to a magnificent edifice whose foundations were laid by Maxwell 152 years ago and whose structure depends on decades-old advances that made it possible to build electronics devices ever smaller."

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Cellphones As a Fifth-Order Elaboration of Maxwell's Theory

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  • Claude Shannon? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by chthon ( 580889 ) on Wednesday February 22, 2017 @03:02AM (#53909911) Homepage Journal

    Without his work on the information theory, it seems that this feat would also not be possible (got my master in electronics a couple of years ago, and information theory was more important than both other points).

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Without his work, it seems that Shannon's feat would not be possible.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Surely, without Aristotle's work, Boole would not have been able to produce his work.

        • Surely, without Thales' work, Aristotle blah blah & cetera.

          There's plenty of room in the past.

          (And we can regress down other lines too. We wouldn't have miniaturization without the various techniques for precise machining, or without quality steel. We wouldn't have semiconductors, integrated circuits, or high-capacity batteries without the work of all those chemists who isolated elements and explored their properties. We wouldn't have cheap commodity computers without video games.)

    • by gl4ss ( 559668 ) on Wednesday February 22, 2017 @04:12AM (#53910075) Homepage Journal

      really, no.

      the hardware enabling comes first. what you do with it comes second. there are inventions and then there are what you would call obvious ideas.

      most visible advancements come from the latter while it's inventions and things that enabled those inventions which enable them.

      for example, if there had not been apple, if there had not been nokia, you would still have that mobile phone - what these companies have mostly done is just applying inventions that enabled their devices to be made, like the transistor and so forth.

      information theory therefore comes second, it's about what you do with them - but it is something that was born out of need for it due to other inventions already existing.

      as obviously you are working mostly in applications of electric devices and what you can do with them, information theory is more important for you, because you aren't really trying to design a smaller chip and break chip manufacturing minimum size limits, in which case you would find the physics research to have been way more valuable for you - and without those devices that are enabled by science you wouldn't be using them for engineering solutions using them.

      shannon seems mostly having been interested in the logic side of things: If you have a machine that does this and this what will be the logical conclusion that you can do with it - people like this are far more likely to pop up rather than the kind of people who come up with the new device itself - for example an internal combustion engine meant quite a lot of changes to the world, once you had that it didn't take quite as much imagination to use it for something as it did to actually come up with a design for a working motor - but once you had the motor it would be obvious to use it to generate electricity, to drive cars, to drive boats and so forth.

      incidentally this difference is how you can smell bullshit sellers a million miles away: if someone is selling like a perpetual motion machine that makes water or a car that runs on water, you need to ask yourself: why isn't he applying it to such and such.

      the thorium car from a while back for example: who fucking cares if it can run a car forever when, if they had a working model for the power source, they would be using it on a car as the last thing on earth making the whole design and articles about it utterly stupid. Having the power generating unit would change the whole world and the cars would be the last thing to change, so why try to sell the idea as a car engine as the first thing?

      • by Anonymous Coward

        the thorium car from a while back for example: who fucking cares if it can run a car forever when, if they had a working model for the power source, they would be using it on a car as the last thing on earth making the whole design and articles about it utterly stupid. Having the power generating unit would change the whole world and the cars would be the last thing to change, so why try to sell the idea as a car engine as the first thing?

        What if you discovered you could make free phone calls with a toy whistle you found in a cereal box, but you only ever used it to dial a joke?

      • by SharpFang ( 651121 ) on Wednesday February 22, 2017 @10:52AM (#53911131) Homepage Journal

        And here you both argue the chicken and the egg problem, and you both are wrong.

        Hardware and software go hand in hand. One pushes the other as much as the other pushes the first.

        Turing did a lot of computer science and information theory developments that were ahead of his time, because there was no hardware capable of implementing them.

        Fleming, developing the first vacuum tube diode, had no idea it would be later used to perform computations.

        That was in the pioneering times. Currently, it's a constant push. Faster processors, to run available software faster. More elaborate software, making use of the new capabilities provided by the new processors. And again, faster processors to enable that software to run faster.

        ID software pushed the CPU to its limits with Doom and Quake. Then 3dfx Voodoo was released, to offload the processor, and allow even more elaborate games. More advanced games pushed more advanced GPUs... and then protein folding happened. Computations that could take decades, finished within weeks, thanks to special purpose processors invented for gaming.

        This is a joint progress, happening on too many fronts simultaneously, too many advances both contributing and demanding more advances, that trying to discretize it and say 'this before this' is silly.

    • by DrYak ( 748999 ) on Wednesday February 22, 2017 @04:31AM (#53910101) Homepage

      Cue in citation about standing on giants' shoulders by Sir Isaac Newton.

      Yup in reality - unlike what TV show and glamour media want you to think - there isn't such a thing as a "revolution" and "geniuses" in science.
      Science is mainly an iterative process that build upon what was known and possible up to now and pushes the boundary a little bit further on each step.
      It's not powered by "geniuses", but by brilliant humans that are able to notice what is available to them and how to combine these things to push the above mentioned boundaries.

      That means that you can't trace back the "smartphone" as a single revolution started by one single person.
      Countless scientists have each added their small brick to the Great Wall.

      (e.g.: We could also add Volta : all current gizmo are electricity powered).

      The flip side of this is that geeks and nerds tend to never be amazed by new technology.
      We tend to realise that the latest over hyped and marketing pushed "revolution", is basically an evolution of what we've done in the past decade, only a tiny bit better.
      (Nope, Apple's iPhone didn't start the smartphone. Only the mass-marketed smartphone craze. Idea of portable computers have been in the wild for quite some time with companies producing PDAs like Palm, Apple's own Newton, Psion, etc.)

      The *yawn* reaction that you get from /. isn't merely condescending. It's just that we are better aware on which giant's shoulder the latest craze is standing.

      • Albert Einstein once said, 'I stand not on the shoulders of Newton, but on the shoulders of James Clerk Maxwell.'

      • by Bongo ( 13261 )

        I mostly agree, plus there's a level of semantics to what we choose to call "genius".

        And there's also, not to be ignored, a thing about "emergence". That's when certain conditions make something new possible. And that's a bit different to incremental change. For example, hypothetically, the world has 197 countries (or so) and you could incrementally see blocks merging until maybe there's just 3 counties. Now the difference between 197 and 3 seems big, while the difference between 3 and 0 is small, yet the m

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        It is funny how many people on here are insisting so strongly that the number of people involved in discovering something like electromagnetism is so small. Multiple posts act as if people could be counted on one hand of revolutionaries, explicitly stating they were the types to create things in a vacuum without the help of others.

        Yet Maxwell is a perfect example of this. While his contributions are significant, the equations famously attributed to him are mostly the work of Gauss, Faraday, and Ampere. H

        • Maxwell also didn't fully realize the implication of these equations

          Perhaps because he died at age 48. Which kind of makes what he was able to do in his 48 years all the more remarkable.

      • there isn't such a thing as a "revolution" and "geniuses" in science.

        There may be no geniuses, but there certainly are revolutions in scientific advancement, typically called "paradigm shifts"

        There was a time people believed combustion was "phlogiston" exiting the material; blood was generated and consumed in the body (not circulated); the Sun revolved around the Earth; mice could be "created" by leaving some food and rags alone in a bucket in a barn for a few days, while fly maggots were "generated" in meat. Around Maxwell`s days it was believed aether was needed for th

        • Playing the devil's advocate

          There was a time people believed combustion was "phlogiston" exiting the material;

          Which isn't entirely wrong. It's just the same usual equations but with an arbitrary minus sign in front of the oxygen.

          (Just as you could mathematically describe orbits with a complex bunch of circles, but using ellipses makes it way much simpler for everyone).

          blood was generated and consumed in the body (not circulated);

          (medieval dark-age medecine hardly qualifies as a science. more of a superstition.
          christian middle-age somewhat focused on a very small subset of the knowledge (mainly Aristotle) available in antiquity that happen to play n

        • there certainly are revolutions in scientific advancement, typically called "paradigm shifts"

          Kuhn's version of the history of science is popular, but it's far from universally accepted. Contrast, say, Paul Thagard's, or Paul Feyerabend's, or David Stove's.

          While scientific thought, in its modern Western conception,[1] has certainly gone through any number of revisions, some of them dramatic,[2] the paradigm-shift model is not "certainly" an adequate or accurate description of those changes. Maybe it's a pretty good one; some people argue it's the best we have. But it's not a settled matter.

          [1] So qu

  • Consumers (Score:5, Insightful)

    by AlphaBro ( 2809233 ) on Wednesday February 22, 2017 @03:18AM (#53909967)
    Modern consumers almost never consider the origins of complex digital devices (or any other inventions for that matter), and our societies go as far as mocking the "nerds" than make such inventions happen. They don't realize that Apple didn't invent cellular technology because they simply don't give a shit. To the average consumer, a cell phone is only marginally different from a piece of fruit picked from a tree.
    • I would argue that people have very much become the same way.
      Origins be damned, are you useful to me right now or not?

  • That should be the universal law, like some crazed version of Kant's categorical imperative. It would stop people bumping into me as I go about my daily business too.

    On the other hand, I did build a (sort-of) computer in about 1966, but the discrete transistors, solder, printed circuit blanks etc. etc. came from an electronics supply store. So I probably wouldn't be able to make this suggestion using a computer that I bought pre-built.
    • A competent EE graduate should be able to build a computer from raw materials, or at the least, be able to describe in some amount of detail how to go to it.

      1. design transistor (pn junctions or cmos) how they're made and how they work
      2. design logic gates (and, or, flipflop, counter, register, mux) out of transistors
      3. design a computer out of logic gates (addressing, registers, adders, logic (karnaugh))
      as for cell phones, they should know how to build an am or fm radio and to transmit digital inform

    • The plans for the first computer I wanted to build used 2N3055 transistors for the flip-flops. Yes. Big power transistors. No way in hell could I afford enough of those in the early 70s. If the author of the book in question had a clue, they would have used 2N2907s, I might have been able to make the thing. With a telephone dial as the input device and everything else.

  • Simplified (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    >But clever and appealing though today's electronic gadgets may be, to the historian they are nothing but the inevitable fifth-order elaborations of two fundamental ideas: electromagnetic radiation, the theory of which was formulated by James Clerk Maxwell in the 1860s, and miniaturized fabrication, which followed Richard Feynman's 1959 dictum [PDF] that "there's plenty of room at the bottom."

    Maxwell and Feynman were indeed geniuses. But a historian would know that just because something happened (the in

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 22, 2017 @04:06AM (#53910067)

    Those companies are innovative, but if you're going to point out the foundations they build on, I'd like to also point out the government and non-profit research organizations like universities.

    GPS and the internet for example, they were not invented by companies.

    The government is the single largest risk investor. Companies only integrate these technologies into market-fitting packages, which is the most visible part, and thus they get too much credit.

    To have a good discussion it might be useful to distinguish between three phases in how technology spreads: invention, innovation and diffusion.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The robber barons (Google, Facebook, Uber) remember government very well, when they want to externalize the costs of beating up protesters and jailing dissidents who oppose their profiteering.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    A group of kids at school are building a tower out of legos. A new kid walks up and snaps a the final block into place and all the parents say "What a beautiful tower you've built!", hoist the kid on their shoulders, parade him around while cheering, and finally shower him with candy.
    The other kids just sit there silently with a glum look on their faces. One of the parents says "what about them? I think we have a few pieces of unwanted candy we can toss their way".

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Einstein described Maxwell's work as the "most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton"

  • Electromagnetism is just a corner case of electroweak theory. Take that, Maxwell!
    • by jiriw ( 444695 )

      Ehm, no. It doesn't matter in this case, Electromagnetism is enclosed by Electroweak theory. You don't need electroweak theory to build a smart phone unless you want it to run on fission decay batteries. You do need the electromagnetism part, though. For the theories behind how the various radios that are built into a smart phone, communicate wirelessly, at least.
      Also, you need Quantum Mechanics for things like Transistors (Semiconductor theories) and GPS navigation (atomic clocks -> Photovoltaic effect

      • You don't need to know electromagnetism theory to build a radio, or smartphone either. Just some basic observations on how electronic work, resistors, capacitors, inductors. it can be done empirically. In college, we were designing and building radios freshman and sophomore year, but didn't study e&m (Maxwell) until junior year.
  • Most of them don't even know that they are a form of two-way radio. They think "cell" means some magic new "digital" technology, not the same waves that carried the Ed Sullivan show to their grandparent's homes via the rabbit-eared B&W TV on Sunday nights.

  • No mention of free markets? Iterative science is great, it is usually funded by non-geeks pursuing profitable business and products. And, uhh, hate to say it but most nerd frustrations come from a lack of a normal sexual progression, not "zombies on the streets" who dont know how a PCB works.
  • by Laxator2 ( 973549 ) on Wednesday February 22, 2017 @05:42AM (#53910225)

    I stopped reading when I saw: "Now that the world has become addicted to portable electronics ..."

    Not one of these authors mention the fact that many people will gladly do without portable electronics, but they have not choice but to use them.
    The fact that mobile phones are affordable, almost all populated areas have coverage and they enable people to get in touch at any moment, brings the _expectation_ that everyone has a cell phone with then and can be contacted at any moment.

    Let's say you live in a large city and you tell your boss "I will check with you when I get to a public phone".
    Will your boss tell you "OK, check with me when you get to a public phone", or "Get a cell phone" ?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I am no more addicted to phone than to clothes.

    • Let's say you live in a large city and you tell your boss "I will check with you when I get to a public phone". Will your boss tell you "OK, check with me when you get to a public phone", or "Get a cell phone" ?

      You couldn't get away with that in the USA. Public phones, or pay phones, are dead. Almost none exist any more. They are so rare that I've been known to take photos of them in amazement just to show people that a few of them actually do still exist.

    • Cellphones, yeah, but we're still at the stage that smartphones - which is what the article is about (nobody ever walked the streets looking down at their Motorola RAZR) - are still optional. I lived for over a year without one, just using a flip, and nobody at work noticed.
      • I still have a flip. And everybody at work notices, when I pull out my phone to actually make a call or text (and can do both without even looking at it.) Some are amazed that with a career in computers I don't want to be constantly connected/enslaved to a small-screen computer, and actually want to look up or at trees, or have conversations with friends using my mouth. I'm amazed that they DO want to ignore the world and exist only in their small, digital, impersonal realm. (BTW, Yes I know there's a compu
    • ...the _expectation_ that everyone has a cell phone with then and can be contacted at any moment.

      Let's say you live in a large city and you tell your boss "I will check with you when I get to a public phone". Will your boss tell you "OK, check with me when you get to a public phone", or "Get a cell phone" ?

      Anecdotal, but I find that I actually garner _more_ respect when I tell people that I won't likely answer their call later, because I don't keep my phone with me. I get home, take my phone out of my pocket, and put it on my desk in my den. Often, I even forget to turn the ringer back on. I'm not easy to get hold of but I will always return a call. I just don't know when.

    • None of the people in this discussion have mentioned the real evil destroying our world.

      Books. Newspapers. Written language. When Gutenberg's press came into existence, there was a Swedish psychologist warning everyone that we'd all experience information overload, social withdrawal, and all manner of ills becoming addicted to the vast mountains of text sent our way. The family is destroyed as the father now reads the paper at breakfast instead of interacting with his household, and the children read

    • Possibly I will choose employment at a job where I don't need to communicate with a 'boss' when I am not at work.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Wednesday February 22, 2017 @07:43AM (#53910491) Journal
    It is very common to see T-shirts and mugs like these images [google.com] saying And God said, {maxwell's equations in vector calculus notations}, and there was light.

    Father of computational electromagnetics Zoltan Cendes, [cmu.edu] named his flagship product Maxwell(tm). He is the one figured out how to remove the null space of the curl vector from the computational solutions. Before that naively applying finite element formulation to Maxwell's equations yielded garbage. His edge-vector finite element formulation is the gold standard in getting computational EM results.

    This brings up what Linus said recently. One would think Maxwell's equation was all "innovation". But remember, Maxwell did not work in the vector calculus! He was working in analytical geometry, Cartesian coordinate system. Laboriously wrote out the expanded forms of the gradient operator and worked through the equivalent of the cross product explicitly term by goddammed term. I see Computational EM developers struggling to keep up with the math even with the use of Matlab and Mathematica software packages handling symbolic algebra. That he did it all in analytical geometry, for the first time, without knowing all the gibberish he was writing down will eventually lead to a breakthrough....

    Is it possible other great mathematicians of his day had this idea? Probably. Some might have even pointed the direction to Maxwell himself. But, in the end, trudging through all that algebra and coordinate geometry in the long form laboriously is what made that breakthrough possible. Yes, innovation is needed as the spark. But, blood, sweat and toil contribute a lot more to success.

    • by rfengr ( 910026 )
      To bad Ansoft went to shit.
    • Maxwell did not work in the vector calculus!

      Well, even more incredibly, he worked in both [wikipedia.org].

    • Very true. The vector thing was the brain child of Oliver Heaviside. As much as I appreciate Maxwell, it is sad to see that Heaviside, one of the few people that understood Maxwell`s work, and the one who gave the equations their current, familiar form -while on the fly inventing vector calculus- is virtually unknown, even on /.
  • I don't think anybody here thought Steve Jobs invented the electricity. Hopefully.
    • Steve Jobs invented "parking in the handicap spot because you are the boss." Sadly, he is never given the proper credit for what he really invented.

  • It seems to me it's always Version 2.? of a product that has the longest service life and is the most reliable, sometimes with hidden advanced features. Possibly because version 1 is just out of prototype and version 3 is starting to have engineered redundancy.

  • What, you're talking about fifth-order technology with no nods to Richard Seaton and Martin Crane? I think I'll just leave it at that, and see how old this makes me.

  • - Quantum theory (which lead to modern semiconductor technology, and perhaps superconductors and superconductor-based switches and electronics in the future)
    and
    - The concept of a programmable machine - the computer, as a unit formed by hardware and software.

  • Ought to have mentioned Heaviside, as Maxwells four equations in differential form are a product of Heaviside. He is also responsible for coaxial cable, the Laplace transform, and many other things. Heaviside made Maxwells equations practical.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Really, why is it necessary to rain on the parade of tech innovators, even if indirectly, in order to complement Maxwell?

    It seems that to a Physicist, "there are 4 fundamental forces and all else that follows is mere detail". Which again, reminds me of the pointless and chest bumping arguments as to which science is "best", Physics, Biology, or Chemistry.

    Maxwell is great. He did not, however, manage to change mass culture. These are different spheres of greatness, requiring different tools, different inn

  • There's a similar story to tell on the software side, of course. The principles underlying the operating environment go back to the mid sixties or earlier, and the user interface concepts were developed (on much larger and much slower systems) primarily in the early to mid seventies. Some of these things have been re-invented, and there are admittedly many innovations in modern systems, but other concepts and techniques are directly traceable to artifacts created in industrial and university research labora

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