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Windows in Time (1980)

Don Stokes

Sound | 1980

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  •  NARRATOR: The natural world was cloaked with a counterpane of myth and superstition and dread. Angry gods dwelled everywhere, shouting down reason. But surely, the sun and moon were not gods. Anaxagoras was sure they were stones on fire. Thales carried knowledge from Babylon, said water was the fundamental element of all matter. Anaximenes believed it was air. Democritus believed the universe was made of things so small, they couldn’t be cut. He called them atoms. And so they looked out at the natural world of earth and wind and water and fire, and they argued on these few. The Ionian scientists. 
  •  With their measuring sticks and their radical impious ideas, they yanked the world from ignorance by the seat of its pants. Strange that our progress as a civilization would depend on the work of a handful of philosopher mechanics who lived on a stretch of Asian coast about the time of Buddha. They were the first link in a chain of research and development that built the world we know. 
  •  But we wonder, who are the new Ionians? Who are the people working today to build tomorrow’s world? The new Ionians are bewildering in their diversity, each an individual human being different from any other; backgrounds, skills, motivations, dreams, all unique, each unique. Only one thing binds them together: they’re still locked in the timeless, passionate struggle with the earth, the wind, the sea, and fire.  
  •  His name is William Fairbank, a physicist at Stanford University. Although his pursuits of fundamental questions has led him to examine the death of a star, he now turns his eyes from outward to inward, from large to small, in search of the fundamental building block of all matter. If his experiments are successful, the universe can never be explained quite the same way again.  
  •  WILLIAM FAIRBANK: The physicist is motivated to find out what the universe is like. And the excitement about modern physics is the fact that the power of technology and the imaginative beauty of theoretical physics has combined to allow us to see things that we didn’t even imagine existed before. For example, certainly the most dramatic event in the history of the universe is the collapse of the star in a supernova.  
  •  And the theorists have predicted that during the last thousandth of a second of this collapse, when the star changes from something the size of our sun to something the size of our university campus, that a completely new kind of a wave is spread out INspace moving with the velocity of light, a gravity weight.  
  •  And they predict that if such a collapse took place in the center of our galaxy 10,000 years ago, that now as that wave passed the Stanford campus, this five-ton aluminum bar will ring for the order of the second, and the amplitude of that motion will be one-billionth as large as the size of an atom. And yet, this apparatus is designed to detect such small motion.  
  •  NARRATOR: Fairbank, who once taught a course called the Poetry of Physics has been searching since 1975 for a thing called a quark. Named after a line in James Joyce’s Finnigans Wake, the quark might well be the smallest divisible unit of matter. Curiously, the properties of certain quarks carry such names as charm and truth and beauty. The existence of the quark was mathematically demonstrated by physicists in 1963, but Fairbank is now demonstrating their existence experimentally.  
  •  FAIRBANK: The exciting thing about the quark is that it’s taught us something about our world that we never even imagined before, that our knowledge of atomic and nuclear physics is not the whole story. We haven’t discovered all the fundamental things about our universal after all. Technology has allowed us to look in regions we haven’t been able to before. It’s really a never-ending search. 
  •  NARRATOR: William Fairbank is a fundamental scientist, one of hundreds of gifted theorists and experimentalists whose knowledge and understanding of the universe will become the fountainhead of our future progress as a planet and a people. Research that is motivated by an exquisite curiosity and the sheer joy of discovery, a motivation that is as much aesthetic as it is scientific, as much poetry as it is physics.  
  •  Since the beginning of recorded history, travelers and scholars alike have been guided by lights such as this. Two thousand years ago in Alexandria, another light beckoned the spiritual ancestors of William Fairbank, the greatest theoretical minds of the age. They looked out at the natural world, and they generated an enormous quantity of new knowledge. Eratosthenes calculated the size of the earth and mapped it with accuracy. Hipparchus measured the life cycle of stars. Euclid wrote a textbook on geometry that would be used for more than 2,000 years. Heron experimented with the steam engine 19 centuries before James Watt was credited with inventing it.  
  •  For an instant of time, the flame of scientific learning burned remarkably bright, and then, in an instant, went out again, and there was darkness. Why did the marvelous spirit and achievement of the Alexandrians die so quickly and for so long? For all their great intellectual achievements, for all their understanding of the world around them, they were never able to apply that understanding to the human problems of a very real world. They never grasped the potential of science to free people from the chains which bound them so firmly to the earth.  
  •  Some researchers look at the sun and seek to understand its origin and fate, others look at the sun and wonder what it can do. It’s the difference between Galileo and Edison, between science and technology. Richard Swanson is among a new generation of Edisons developing the technologies of tomorrow.  
  •  RICHARD SWANSON: Well, research, it really has a lot of similarities with sailing. In research, you have the forces of nature or the laws of nature, if you will, which you’re trying to bend to your will, to make them work for you, and sailing is the same way. It’s also competitive. Sailing can be competitive. Research is competitive. There’s a lot of researchers, and everybody wants, of course, to be successful and their project to succeed. It’s not so much a competition against other people, really, as a competition against yourself or with yourself to succeed and have your concepts work. 
  •  NARRATOR: His mission: To develop efficient systems for generating electric power directly from sunlight. He is among those bringing science home to the people.  
  •  SWANSON: Ten years ago, those people in photovoltaics had to be more like zealots. Most people then thought that converting sunlight directly into electricity, or photovoltaics as we call it, was the will of the wisp, something that would never become practical for application here on earth. But now we have overcome most of the problems of the solar cell itself, and we’re learning to make the other components in the system work efficiently together.  
  •  NARRATOR: When a technology begins to move from theory to reality, a new series of questions face the researcher.  
  •  SWANSON: You’ve got to look out at the rest of the world and see what you’re doing, see how that fits into the overall scheme of things, because when you’re developing technology, you’re really shooting at a moving target. Technology flows, technology develops, but you’re shooting at a window in time. It takes fifteen years, maybe twenty years to bring a technology into commercial development, so you need to assess the needs of society in the future. Will what you’re doing really be needed fifteen or twenty years from now? At the same time, you’re using the technology of today. Five years ago, we could not even have built the solar cells we’re working on today because the integrated circuit technology which we use in the cell manufacture wasn’t developed enough.  
  •  NARRATOR: There is another frustration of which researchers like Richard Swanson seldom speak.  
  •  SWANSON: It’s a fear everybody in research lives with, that what you’re doing just has no role in history, that it’s an offshoot, then it’ll fade away. I think the way I deal with it and the way many of us deal with it is to be sure every moment that we’re growing and learning, but for sure, the real payoff, the thing that we all live for, is to see something new that you have created and see it come into existence, or to discover something new, to be the first person to know something or to find out something about nature. It’s an adventure.  
  •  NARRATOR: A wind farm, Goldendale, Washington. The harvest? Electricity. Energy for a nation running short. Wind generators like these are triumphs of the developmental process. From conceptual design to engineering development to testing to pilot installation, all in a few short years. The development of the wind generator created some strange technological bedfellows. It also demonstrated that there is often something of the romantic in the researcher’s heart.  
  •  PAT FINNEGAN: I would say I was sort of like a kid in a candy store— 
  •  NARRATOR: His name is Pat Finnegan. For five years, he worked in NASA’s wind program. His major challenge? To come up with a low-cost, high-performance blade for the huge wind generators.  
  •  FINNEGAN: So what we did is we went to propeller companies because there was similarity between our rotor and a propeller, we also went to helicopter companies, and we also went to aircraft companies that build aircraft wings. You can see the similarity between a rotor and an aircraft wing if you consider the fact that these models are all built to scale, and they’re built to the scale of that little automobile. So you can see that the very largest rotors are larger than any aircraft wing that’s been built to date.  
  •  There was one other technology that we considered, it turned out to be a dark horse, and that was boat-building technology.  
  •  I’ve always been interested in sailing and in wood boat construction techniques. When I got involved with building wind turbine blades, I noticed a similarity between certain parts of a sailboat and wind turbine blades. We were familiar with the process that the Gougeon brothers use to construct boats out of wood and epoxy, and we called Meade Gougeon and asked him to come to our research center and discuss the possibility of building a blade using these boat-building techniques.  
  •  NARRATOR: The search led here to the boat-building shop of the Gougeon brothers in Bay City, Michigan—for years respected builders of fine sailboats and iceboats from wood.  
  •  GOUGEON BROTHER: Iceboating is a very difficult technical challenge for a material. And iceboats have traditionally been built of wood. So we just felt that we had a material—engineering material that would work just as well in the wind turbine situation.  
  •  NARRATOR: The material was ideal; light, strong, with the ability to resist stress and fatigue, but one major problem remained, how do you attach the blade to the hub with enough integrity to withstand the tremendous loads that would be developed? The answer, again, came from the shipwright’s art.  
  •  GOUGEON: We developed a unique method of bonding in studs prior to this with keelboats. We had to attach ten-thousand-pound keels to the bottom of a wooden boat and developed a bonded stud to process, and we utilized this technology to take a wind turbine blade and bolt it to the hub.  
  •  NARRATOR: Those who developed the technologies that serve us today and will serve us tomorrow are gifted in the art of synthesis. Like the Nautilus, they reach here and there, often into the past, gathering things that work and putting them together in whole new ways.  
  •  FINNEGAN: And the conclusion is that wind is probably the most viable in the near term. I mean, it will be the most economical, most reliable system. And the near term is say, within the next five years.  
  •  NARRATOR: The sun heats the earth unevenly and the winds are born. Now we place great and complex machines in their way to catch their power. The achievement of a host of interlocking disciplines, including brothers who build fine boats from wood.  
  •  It was 1956. A company called Pratt & Whitney. A small group of scientists, researchers, and engineers with experience in a wide range of disciplines. They were given a mandate. Come up with something that hasn’t been done before. Use all your skills and all your experience to develop something useful for society that has a potential for profit down the road. Their leader’s name was and is William Podolni. 
  •  WILLIAM PODOLNI: And we had this excellent team. And we explored such concepts as thermoelectrics and thermionics, magnetohydrodynamics. Almost all of them fell by the wayside. Save one. And that one happened to be the one technology which probably was just outside of our sphere of understanding, and that was the fuel cell.  
  •  NARRATOR: The fuel cell is a new type of power generator that converts the chemical energy of a fuel directly into electricity with no intermediary combustion cycle. It is extremely efficient. And its efficiency is independent of scale. It is also environmentally benign.  
  •  PODOLNI: Well, the power plant’s milestone in terms of valid, repeated application has been as the electric generation system in the Apollo vehicle and the space shuttle. We look to those applications even though the technology is somewhat different than the one used for ground-based fuel cell concepts. And one way I envision it, whether it be the Apollo, which was a quarter of a million miles away from home, or, more importantly, that space shuttle which is rotating the earth with several men and later on, perhaps a dozen persons. The electric utility generating system and the distribution system for that small, isolated city in that hostile environment is a fuel cell power plant generating network.  
  •  NARRATOR: Although the theory of a fuel cell has been around for well over 100 years, a device large enough to contribute significantly to the nation’s supply of electricity was a long time coming.  
  •  PODOLNI: Well, I separate research and development by the simple process of saying research identifies potential from a theoretical standpoint, more or less, or a philosophical standpoint. Development is the process by which we reduce the practice. In the case of something like a fuel cell power plant development, the primary activity is developmental. It’s not a single brilliant entity that is the focal point for having made the progress, it’s a whole host of individuals, each one with great talent, good discipline, capabilities, not necessarily brilliance, but competent, dedicated perseverance in his own field trying to move forward an inch at a time in making his contribution to the whole. 
  •  NARRATOR: Now the product of their labor stands beneath the towering skylines of Manhattan. A fuel cell, one thousand times larger than the ones developed to power Gemini and Apollo. This one, to meet the rising power demands of America’s largest city, testing and evaluation are successful. A commercial plant could be available by 1990. For those who worked on the project, the plant represents a full, professional lifetime. Thirty years ago, they set out to do something that has never been done before. Now that goal is within reach.  
  •  It was not really so long ago that our fathers peered from the darkness of the caves of the star that ruled their seasons and their lives. Then in an instant of time, came Anaxagoras, Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Galileo. The year Galileo died, Isaac Newton was born and Einstein lived only two lifetimes after Newton. Our most distant past was merely a moment ago.  
  •  MALVINA VACCACIO: Research is a way of life. It’s quite an adventure. It’s really like being an explorer. You have some idea what you’d like to find, but you don’t know exactly what you will find, so you have to accept the hard work in between. Between then, ask why, and you say because. Between these two things are the 99 percent of all our time.  
  •  NARRATOR: Her name is Malvina Vaccacio. As a girl in Romania, she was fascinated with the unique problems of transforming matter. It led to America where she seeks to transform coal and the heavy ends of petroleum into gasoline.  
  •  VACCACIO: If I look at a piece of coal, and I really like to know what it is inside. As a chemist, I want to know how the atoms arrange inside. So you can try just without any knowledge to do something, but the chance to be successful is quite slim. 
  •  NARRATOR: Coal is composed of literally millions of compounds. To study them all in the traditional manner would take the life work of all the scientists around. Vaccacio’s technique is far from traditional. It is inspired by the ancient patterns of Romanian folk art.  
  •  VACCACIO: When you look at the piece of tapestry and you work on it, at the beginning, you have all the freedom you can imagine to put everything you want inside the first element, the second element. After that, your freedom is restricted by reality. The system start to have a logic of itself, a structure. 
  •  NARRATOR: Vaccacio looks at a piece of coal and in her mind, she creates an abstract tapestry, a beautiful, yet fictional, atomic structure. And then she tests the abstraction against reality, and little by little, swinging back and forth between abstraction and reality, the logic of the system becomes apparent. Each piece of information she gathers becomes a stitch in the tapestry.  
  •  VACCACIO: We’ve put the stitches together in an abstraction, in a formula that represents this piece of coal. What is it inside? What atoms and how they are arranged? If I am right, then this piece of coal will be just like this structure. And I think it’s a fantastic thing that an abstraction that is in your mind, it’s behaving like reality. I find that this is really very rewarding thing, just to hear the right answer.  
  •  NARRATOR: The importance of Vaccacio’s work becomes apparent when you consider that not all the oil that comes from the ground is valuable as fuel, but if we can transform all this oil into a clean, high-quality fuel, we will tap a cultural gold mine. And to create liquid fuel from coal would be to greatly increase our energy self-sufficiency.  
  •  One of the problems plaguing scientists today is an unexpected one; too much information. On this shelf are the two volumes of indexes of chemical abstracts for the years 1907 through 1916. This shelf contains the indexes of chemical abstracts for just the year 1981. The known facts about our world are increasing at an enormous rate.  
  •  VACCACIO: Well, if you look in the history, I think it always was an exciting time to be a chemist, but this is our time. It’s the kind of research in energy, it’s something that now and here type of research that means whatever results we’ll find will mean a lot in the way society will live in the future, what kind of lives they will have. The quality of life will be very much influenced by the work that say, people that are working in energy are doing.  
  •  NARRATOR: One day, science will be gifted at transforming matter of little value into products that have great value to the quality of our lives, and it will be partially due to a woman who could envision the world in the ancient folk patterns of Romanian art, a scientist who created reality from abstraction. Malvina Vaccacio and the thousands of men and women involved in research today are a part of an epic search that reaches back beyond the Ionian scientists of Asia Minor and fold farther than the mind can conceive.  
  •  Pursuing the precise sciences in an imprecise world can be frustrating beyond measure. Sometimes because the researcher misses that critical window in time within which his ideas or technology have social relevance. Yet, if we are to discover a new and golden age of ever-expanding human potential, it will be the scientist and the technologist who will chart the course.  
  •  FINNEGAN: If you—if you like solving new problems all the time, encountering new challenges, being in research and development is a very good thing, indeed.  
  •  VACCACIO: But when you keep in mind—I think this is the key—to think all the time that you have to answer some kind of questions, they’re really very interesting and exciting to answer.  
  •  PODOLNI: If we should fail because of time and resources, I believe that those that would follow us, it would truly make this a success, and it would be a great contribution to mankind. And for that, I think that’s an extraordinary privilege. 
  •  FINNEGAN: The nature of our business is such that as soon as you solve one problem and it worked right, and somebody has another problem there for you to solve.  
  •  SWANSON: Just like discovering a new canyon as a traveler or something like that, suddenly, here’s something that—and you see it for the first time. It’s exciting, it is—it is a real kick.  
  •  NARRATOR: With their minds and their hands, they will grasp the age-old elements of earth and wind, water and fire, and shape from them a world in which the human experience has a chance to be more rewarding than it has ever been before.  
  •  Transcribed by Adept Word Management™, Inc. 
  •  William Fairbank on Physics 
  •  Richard Swanson on solar power 
  •  Pat Finnegan on wind power 
  •  William Podolni on fuel cells 
  •  Malvina Vaccacio on coal 
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This industrial film, produced by Bill Stokes Associates for the Electric Research Power Institute, describes the development of energy technologies in the twentieth century. Scientists in various fields discuss a variety of topics, such as quarks, solar power, wind power, fuel cells, and coal. Established in 1972, the Electric Research Power Institute conducts a research and development program for electric utilities in the United States. Though headquartered in Palo Alto, California, the organization operates several office locations, including one in Dallas. Transcribed by Adept Word Management™, Inc.
Formed in 1965, Bill Stokes Associates (later known as The Stokes Group) was a Dallas-based production company that made industrial and promotional films for a range of clients spanning from Mary Kay Cosmetics to the United States Navy. In 1966, Bill Stokes Associates provided sound stage and production services for the film 1967 Bonnie and Clyde. Bill Stokes has been honored by the Dallas Producers Association with a Film Pioneer Award.