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This is an article to build English skills for science and technology.


The Cell Phone and Pure Research

by Byron Jennings, PhD

Without pure research there would be no cell phone

The cell phone seems to be everywhere, from the bathroom to the boardroom. It is so common that we take it for granted and forget what a technological wonder it is. Lurking behind the technology are decades of pure research. Pure research or curiosity-driven research is scientific research motivated by curiosity rather than any application at the present time. Closely related is the concept of pure mathematics, which is mathematics done for the sake of curiosity and the pure joy of it. Yes, indeed, some people do enjoy doing mathematics.

Four Strands of Pure Research Produced the Cell Phone

Behind the cell phone lie four strands of pure research. First is the research on the radio waves that transmit the signals between the cell phone towers and the cell phone. Second is the research on the properties of the materials that make up the cell phone and its display. Third is the research on the computer programs and mathematical developments behind the programs. Finally, fourth is the research on Einstein's theories of relativity needed for the precise timing used in the cell phone.

First Research Strand, Radio Waves

Radio waves were first demonstrated to exist by Heinrich Hertz in the 1880s. Hertz's comment on the practical use of his results was: "It's of no use whatsoever". In the 1880s, it wasn't. His work was an attempt to confirm equations developed by James Maxwell and published in 1865. These equations were, in turn, based on the work of Michael Faraday and others in the first half of the 19th century on the properties of electricity.

The first practical use of radio waves was by Guglielmo Marconi in the late 1890s and the first transatlantic message followed a few years later. Thus we have a hundred years of development before the first practical radio wave communication and another hundred years to the cell phone.

Second Research Strand, Materials

The cell phone is a computer made small using the latest technology in material science and manufacturing techniques. The camera in the cell phone relies on similar technology to the cell phone itself. The cell phone computer is based on the transistor invented in 1947 by American physicists John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley. The transistor relies on electrons moving about following the rules of quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics, a modern field of physics, was developed as a field of pure research in the 1920s based on earlier work on the structure of matter from the preceding quarter century. The electron itself was discovered in 1896 by the British physicist J. J. Thomson at the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University. There is said to have been a Cambridge toast from the early 20th century of the form "To the electron, may it never be of use to anyone".

This is the way of pure research: from something that is believed to be useless to a mainstay in understanding how practical devices work.

Third Research Strand, Computing and Mathematics

There is more to a computer than the hardware; there is also the mathematical foundation. This foundation is based on the work of George Boole and papers published in 1847 and 1854. This work put logic on a mathematical footing and explored the idea of binary arithmetic. These papers have also been considered the beginning of pure mathematics. Boole's ideas were picked up by Claude Shannon in 1937 and made the foundation for the operation of the digital computer.

The Android operating system used in many cell phones is based on Linux. The first post on Linux by its author, Linus Torvalds was a classic: "I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu)." A few years later it was big and professional, even better than Windows. From small unpromising beginnings, great things arise.

Fourth Research Strand, Relativity and Timing

Cell phone communications depend on very precise timing of the exchanged signals. The precise timing is supplied by the Global Positioning System (GPS). These signals are so precise that even the very small corrections due to special and general relativity must be included. General relativity is usually considered to be important only when the effects of gravity are large but the GPS system is so precise that even the weak effect of the earth's gravity must be taken into account.

It is really quite amazing that the very abstract and mysterious fringes of science have come together to produce the cell phone. Remember that the next time you take a selfie and give thanks to all the people doing apparently useless things who made it possible.

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