Exquisitely dependent

Simple but strong, the cables keep the cars running. San Francisco, July 2003

Simple but strong, the cables keep the cars running. San Francisco, July 2003

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” Carl Sagan

I plead guilty to that!  Or maybe not.

On my list of things I find fascinating, my impulse would be to place “science and technology” near the bottom.  Actually, though, I’ve always enjoyed learning about it.  In my immediate family, my experience with computer technology is far ahead that of my husband or sons; sort of a stereotype-buster.  And I’ve always been interested in learning how things work.  As a kid, I would take apart broken watches and toys to figure out why they stopped running.  So I guess being analytical is not too far removed from enjoying science or technology.

I don’t know anyone who ever went to San Francisco without at least seeing (if not riding) the justly famous cable cars, which are one of only two moving landmarks on the National Register of Historic Places.  Relatively few take advantage of the free admission to the Cable Car museum, where I snapped the photo above.

One day when I was riding the Powell-Hyde line I heard a tourist ask the gripman, “What makes the cable cars run?” He smiled and answered “Cables!” It sounds too simple, but the actual machinery that is visible at the museum validates that answer.  The muscles of the gripmen and the incredible strength of the cables — one for each line — pull thousands of people each day (over seven million each year) up and down the steep hills of San Francisco.

One of the first science lessons I remember is “What is a machine?”  The cable cars are a great example of a relatively simple machine that provides an easily understood introduction to technology for the science-impaired such as I.  What are some of the simple or complex machines on which you depend every day?  When I ask myself that question, I come up with a whole new list of things for which I’m grateful.  I hope you will do the same.

This post was first published seven years ago today. The original post, comments and photo are linked, along with two other related posts, below. These links to related posts, and their thumbnail photos, do not appear in the blog feed; they are only visible when viewing the individual posts by clicking on each one. I have no idea why, nor do I know how they choose the related posts. That’s just the way WordPress does things.


  1. Elena

    This is such an interesting quote!
    I am a material engineer, working in the automotive field and despite all my scientific and technological background I am aware that there are areas about which I know hardly anything or nothing at all, cell phones, for instance.
    At home I depend on all the machines that make stuff (from flour to soap, from clothes to books…) for me. And of course I depend on all the usual electrical appliances…
    I depend on my car; work wise, I totally depend on computers and, when I work from home, on my cell phone for data connection; I have often wonder how my job was carried out prior to the electronic era!
    I, too, have taken apart a couple of broken watches when I was a kid!

    • Elena, I’m glad to know I’m not the only one curious about watches! Remember the children’s game Mousetrap? And its later sibling, Crazy Clock? I loved those games when I was a kid, and perhaps that was in some way akin to my fascination with watches…the entire sequence of mechanical steps that create a process. But certain things are so far outside my understanding that they stagger my imagination, engineering being among those things. I can remember my father plotting his flight routes with a round slide rule, and it boggled my mind more than his 24-hour watch did. To this day, I am amazed at the construction of skyscrapers, or even a regular house. We’ve come a long, long way since the first prehistoric people came up with simple machines!

      • Elena

        I didn’t know those games, they seem interesting!

  2. I have become a science and tech nerd as I’ve grown older. I love technology and all the documentaries about how things work now. Just to let you know, your card arrived safe and sound. Will reply ASAP. Hope you are doing well.

    • Hi M, I’m doing pretty well at the moment. Eager to start traveling again, but meanwhile busy at home with the never-ending “to do” list. Glad the card arrived safely. Like you, I find the workings of technology fascinating, though still mostly outside my ability to grasp. Perhaps there really is such a thing as math anxiety…if so, I definitely had it! If not for math, I might have majored in biology. But I could never have gotten past the chemistry and physics requirements…

      • Numbers dance in my brain so it was never going to be my thing. Science I’ve found fascinating. Certain parts more than others. Chemistry and physics were never introduced if you couldn’t get past basic math. Failed third grade because I couldn’t understand multiplication. Mom finally taught me. Hope my next card gets written and mailed before you start traveling again. You’ll have to tell me about it.

        • Marlene, unfortunately I’m not going anywhere anytime soon (except periodic trips to the York home) so no worries, I will get the mail. I’m with you, science was great until they brought in the math. Mostly I liked biology although I think physics (what little I know of it) is also interesting. Where chemistry is concerned, I developed an interest in pharmacology by watching how Matt responded (or didn’t respond) to various meds over the course of hi 35 years. But I could never have passed any college-level chemistry courses. Thank goodness I tested out of my basic science and math requirements. Since I was a liberal arts major there weren’t many of them.

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