What Makes America (And Civilization) Great

Jun 7, 2016

So what makes America great?

Well, we can start off with poop: human poop, horse poop, all kinds of poop. In general we don't have a lot of poop on our streets — and that is a very good thing. How we got to this enlightened, poop-free state is, however, a story that might enlighten our own angry moment.

Recently, I've been watching "How We Got To Now." It is a wonderful series from a couple of years ago, hosted by Steven Johnson. Each episode tells a story about how the modern world — the one we live in with its complex interplay of science, technology and culture — was built. In the first episode "Clean," Johnson tells how American cities tackled the dangerous issue of poop.

In 1854, the rapidly expanding city of Chicago experienced a cholera epidemic that wiped out 6 percent of the population. Linking the epidemic to the miasma of horse and human excrement fouling the city's streets (and waters), engineer Ellis Chesbrough was brought in to craft a solution. Chesbrough had just triumphed in his construction of Boston's water system. The engineer knew he needed to build a sewer system but there was a problem standing in his way. Chicago is too flat to let gravity draw water anywhere.

Ellis's solution was a typically American one. If the water won't flow down the pipes, then raise the city.

Using an army of workers with jackscrews, Chesbrough literally heaved Chicago upward building-by-building. The city was lifted 10 feet, allowing sewer lines to be laid underneath. This titanic project was just step one in bringing "clean" to Chicago. To ensure that Lake Michigan, the source of city's waters, wasn't poisoned by the newly flowing sewage, Chesbrough eventually led another titanic effort and reversed the flow of the entire Chicago River.

So why does this story matter? Well, when was the last time you thought about what happens after you flush the toilet? Happily, nobody thinks about it because people like Chesbrough and all the engineers who followed him made the sewers (and all the other parts of our civilization) work. It's a process that has never stopped.

So if you don't think about your toilet, how about your cell phone?

The story here is the same except, now we add all the ways American leadership in science has contributed to our highly complex, mostly functioning civilization. Almost every key piece of technology in that magic cellphone box you carry began as research funded through public money.

Say you need to find a hardware store to buy a sink trap for a home plumbing project. The Google search you do to find the nearest Home Depot traces its roots all the way back to the National Science Foundation's Digital Library Initiative, which supported then-graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The GPS you use to map your way to that Home Depot came from research originally funded by the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (among others) to help submarines locate their position. Did you use Siri to call your office on the drive to the Home Depot? Voice recognition technologies have been a keystone of DARPA's research portfolio for years.

So beginning with the sponsorship of the American government, American scientists and engineers at American universities and research institutes created miracles of the kind never seen before in the history of the world. Then American businesses picked up on those advances and build them into fast, effective, pervasive technologies that connect you with everyone and everything on the planet.

There's a straight line from Chesbrough's audacious plan to make Chicago a clean, functioning city 150 years ago and the invisible infrastructures hiding behind your cell phone. Unfortunately, it's a line almost all of us are too quick to forget.

Not to say that we don't have problems. Real problems. The economic insecurity so many people face has been rightly tagged as one source of the anger many people feel. But Americans are very good at solving problems. As our history demonstrates, its just kind of what we do. So whatever issues we do have shouldn't cloud anyone's view of the incredibleness of what we have around us, especially when compared with how bad things could be (i.e. poop on the streets). We have built something remarkable, and the need for both its maintenance and improvement shows that we are all in this together. And, as history shows, we function best when we manage to bring those improvements to everyone.

But, as our history also shows, we can do more than simply improve. The great thing about the American experiment in civilization is how often we've been willing dream really big. From inventing new ways to make clean water available on huge scales, to landing a mobile science lab on Mars, to inventing an internet of linked thinking machines, we also know how to build some incredible things out of dreams.

We've been solving problems with big dreams made real for 240 years.

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

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