Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Useless" Learning

Some fine day, the next time you make a long-distance call, you might be indebted to a 19th-Century Scottish engineer, John Scott Russell, and to the United Kingdom's extensive canal network -- and to the delight some people take in figuring things out for the sheer joy of it.

Your long-distance call (and it didn't have to go all that far to qualify) and indeed, the great Internet itself, is being pulsed along fiber-optical cable. Right now, that light fades over distance and has to be boosted by repeaters, complicated points-of-failure. The distance between them could be greatly increased by propagating the signal in the form of low-loss blips of light called solitons. This effect -- with a wave of water instead of light -- was first observed when Russell observed a canal boat being drawn rapidly along a canal by a team of horses. When the boat stopped, the bow wave kept going!

That single, solitary wave kept right on moving at the same speed the boat had. He followed it for a mile before it outran his horse.

You or I might've thought, "Kewl" and gone home for dinner. John Scott Russell went home, built a thirty-foot wave tank and started investigating.

He collected a lot of data, put together some interesting notions, and though he described the day he first saw the soliton as "the happiest day of my life," it was never of any practical use.

...Never, that is, until modern theorists took up the idea, fiddled the math and left it lieing out where the applications types could find it.

They're still working on it -- but someday, one more benefit from 19th-Century Britain's Inland Navigation System and the mind of a man who enjoyed investigating new phenomena may show up at a phone or online computer near you.

And you thought those canal boats and Scots engineers were only "twee?"


Drang said...

Shouldn't this be a Starship post?
(Am I now going to disappear for making the connection?)

Roberta X said...

Probably yes to one question and no to the other. Which to which? ...Let's just say that dark-clad man at the door might be Johnny Cash....

Tango Juliet said...

The same thing happens to me when doing any remodeling project on the house. The first strike of the hammer sends out a pulse into other rooms of the house that quickly outruns my wallet.

DOuglas2 said...

I'm already indebted to the United Kingdom's extensive canal network for much of my long distance telephony and for internet. They were kind enough to leave lots of easily-dig-uppable towpath right-of-way scattered right around the places in the UK where population density is highest. It's all full of buried fiber and copper now.

Roberta X said...

Oh, heavens yes, Douglas; I had noticed mention of this in my (extensive!) web-wander through the canal system and I am glad you brought it up. We have something similar in Indianapolis; not only has our Central Canal towpath been used as fiberoptic right-of-way, the former Monon Railroad, now a bicycle trail of considerable grater length than what's left of the canal, holds a major routing of state and long-haul fiber beneath its calm surface.

The UK has benefited by having had a much more extensive canal network. One century's infrastructure for one purpose turns out to be useful for a different end in the next!