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Science
THE NEW LAWS OF LIFE
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The 'laws' that describe technological progress.
Tuesday 25 March 2003 9.00-9.30pm

Peter Day explores the implications of some of the principles that underlie new technology, which are beginning to have a profound effect on our daily lives.

Computer class


Big ideas - such as the Theory of Relativity - take decades to be translated into practical consequences. But it's becoming clear that living and working in the 21st century will be shaped by powerful principles that are only just becoming widely known. Examples of these include: Gordon Moore's ‘law’ that the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles every two years; Metcalfe's ‘law’ that the usefulness of a computer or telephone network increases exponentially as more terminals are added; and George Gilder's ‘law’ that once-scarce communications bandwidth is now almost free.

Of course, these observations aren’t really scientific ‘laws’ in the strictest sense - but it is remarkable to what extent they hold true, and are now beginning to profoundly influence our lives. For example, Gordon Moore’s law that computer power doubles every two years (at lower and lower cost) is not just a cliché - it’s the key principle around which the entire global computer industry aligns and organises itself. The law provides such a clear and powerful road map, that different companies in the supply chain can keep in step with little need to talk to each other. The march is relentless - even in a recession, hundreds of billions of dollars are spent and invested so that can companies keep pace.

Another example of the way these laws are reshaping the way we live can be found in Robert Metcalfe’s law. Metcalfe invented a system for networking computers together (he also founded computer giant 3Com) and his idea that 'the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of people using it', provides the basis for the explosive growth in mobile phones and the Internet.

In this programme Peter Day examines some of these new laws, and shows how they have moulded the recent past and will influence the future...more than we can imagine. Interviewees include Gordon Moore, billionaire founder of Intel, Robert Metcalfe, and the influential - and sceptical - British scientist Freeman Dyson, at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

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