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How do we know the stuff we know?
In physics and engineering, a lot of our
knowledge comes from calculations.
And when these calculations become
difficult, we need tools to perform
Fifty years ago, mechanical calculators
(pictured left) were the tool of choice,
and they allowed us to quickly add,
subtract, multiply, and divide numbers.
They are reliable, make a heck of a
noise, weigh 20 pounds, and they just
work. They solved many problems
before the advent of the computer,
contributing a huge amount to what
we know today. But as science
progressed, new and faster tools were
Today, almost every day, I use my
computer (pictured right) to solve the
equations I encounter in my research
in physics. Don’t get me wrong: many
of those calculations could, in
principle, still be done on the
mechanical calculator, but a computer
is just faster, quieter, and does not
weigh as much.
In the background you can see a part
of the equation that I solved using my
computer. Below it, the mechanical
calculator and the laptop stand “back
to back,” as if they are debating who is
better at solving it.
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