Rediscovering the future

April 2, 2003

By Greg Freiherr, Editor, gfreiherr@cmp.comDiscovery can be a humbling experience. Find something novel, something brand new, and-after the exhilaration wears off-you can't

By Greg Freiherr, Editor, gfreiherr@cmp.com

Discovery can be a humbling experience. Find something novel, something brand new, and-after the exhilaration wears off-you can't help being awed by how much more we have to learn. When you rediscover things at the hands of preteen children, it is even more humbling.

I had such an experience last weekend at, where else, Discovery World in the Milwaukee Public Museum. There amid the blinking keyboards and a remote-controlled dinosaur was a screw. I did not immediately recognize it as the cornerstone of civilization. Archimedes invented this incredible machine 2300 years ago to draw water. Just the other day I used a bunch of them to put together a shelf. As machines go, it is pretty simple, a cylinder with an inclined plane wrapped around it. But what did it take to come up with that idea?

Here's another one. The pencil and eraser. They existed separately for a long time, but then, in the 19th century, somebody put them together.

Technology is the same story over and over. It is the process of putting ideas together. Fusing data from PET and CT integrates function and anatomy. Combining magnetic control and x-ray fluoroscopy offers precise guidance of catheters.

Such combinations are much more than technological wonders. They lead to greater achievements. PET/CT promises improved management of cancer patients. Magnetic navigation will likely improve interventions. But these near-term benefits barely scratch the surface of what's possible.

Arranging optics to make distant objects appear close led to the telescope and, just last year, pictures of the universe moments after creation. Arranging optics to make small objects appear bigger led to the microscope and, ultimately, modern medicine.

We are now at a time when iterative advances in basic imaging modalities are able to provide us with enormous volumes of data. Computers and their software help us make sense of this information. And while each modality and its newfound capabilities are mind-boggling in themselves, they are just laying the foundation for what is to come. Someone or some group will someday combine them in ways we cannot today predict.

When these combinations happen, they will be obvious to anyone looking back-like combining the pencil with an eraser, PET with CT.