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Author: George Bugliarello
In Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, "frontier" is defined as "the marches [the utmost border bounding the jurisdiction of the King’s Steward]; the limit; the utmost verge of any territory; the border: properly that which . . . terminates not at sea, but fronts another territory." Webster’s less exuberant dictionary concurs and extends the concept, by analogy, beyond geography to the frontiers of knowledge. Since Vannevar Bush’s famous report, Science: The Endless Frontier, the word frontier has been widely used as a metaphor for the cutting edge of science and technology.
Frontiers constantly front the unknown, which is to be explored, made knowable, and possibly conquered. Like the proverbial drop of oil on water, the frontiers of engineering continue to expand, and the farther they advance, the greater the territory to be explored and the greater the challenges and opportunities for our society. Ten years ago we thought of microelectronics and the most advanced piloted planes as frontiers. Today we think of nanoelectronics, UAVs, and microplanes. Once we thought of hybrid, energy-saving vehicles as being on the frontier. Today we think of hydrogen-fueled vehicles.
From materials to energy to information systems, frontiers in every domain of engineering impact our biology, our society, and our environment and have the potential of revolutionizing them. Consider one small example, designer materials built atom by atom that can lead to new information devices of great capacity and logical power, direct connections between our brains and information machines, ubiquitous information networks, machines with an element of consciousness, and the construction and operation of extremely complex systems.
The societal implications of engineering frontiers are not always recognized. History is replete with examples of great advances in engineering that either were not implemented or were implemented after long delays for lack of understanding and support - Napoleon’s indifference to the potential of the steamship, the British Admiralty’s reluctance to change from paddle wheels to screw propulsion, the Italian post office’s lack of interest in Marconi’s wireless device, and the decision not to develop Goddard’s rockets.
The annual NAE Frontiers of Engineering symposia endeavor to initiate a dialogue among some of the brightest young engineers working in frontier areas where the ferment and excitement of discovery are palpable. Their work may lead to unimagined advances. Seven papers from the 2003 symposium are gathered in this issue of The Bridge. Most of them describe technologies that could barely have been imagined just a few years ago, such as DNA computing by self-assembly (the subject of the paper by Eric Winfree) and the programming of living cells (the paper by Ron Weiss). Dianne Newman discusses microbial mineral respiration, which is still not fully understood but is nevertheless being put to work in many fields. James Heath introduces the tantalizing subject of molecular electronics, which has advanced to the point that industry is taking up the research. Bill Cheswick tackles the problems of Internet security, and Alan Russell, Joel Kaar, and Jason Berberich turn our attention to the use of biotechnology to detect and counteract chemical weapons. The paper by Greg Characklis describes a multidimensional frontier--water-resources engineering--where economics, public policy, and engineering come together to optimize water use, an increasingly scarce resource all over the world.
Only the future will tell if these frontiers will be conquered and how they will change engineering and our world.