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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 April, 2005, 12:05 GMT 13:05 UK
Lecture highlights need to share
No-one imagined the uses lasers would be put to
Collaboration between universities, industry and government is essential if the UK wants to stay at the forefront of invention.

So argues Lord Broers in the second of this year's Reith lectures.

Scientists need to be at the "frontiers of development", if they want to make equivalent advances to the inventors of old, Lord Broers says.

The era of individuals inventing devices and processes in isolation is well and truly over, he believes.

Future vision

The idea that a single person can 'invent' a new technology is out of the question
Lord Broers
The Eureka moment has given way to a more gradual evolution of ideas as global teams of both scientists and engineers replace the often isolated and lucky inventions of the likes of Thomas Newcomen, James Joule and Michael Faraday, he states.

In his series of five lectures - airing on Radio Four throughout April - Lord Broers, who is president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, explores the idea that technology holds the key to the future of the human race.

The second talk focuses on the processes which lead to new technologies.

"Most modern technologies are created by bringing together and evolving capabilities which already exist. The genius lies in the way they are brought together and improved," says Lord Broers.

"I believe that collaboration is absolutely essential for success because it brings both global awareness and the ability to gather together diverse capabilities."

Lord Broers charts the development of the laser to illustrate how technology is constantly evolving and changing.

Originally an adaptation of an earlier device called a maser - an electronic oscillator that operated at very high radio frequencies - the laser was first demonstrated by Theodore Maiman in 1960.

At that stage it was predicted that it would revolutionise optical imaging systems and make holograms feasible.

Creative matrix

"No-one could have imagined the breadth of applications that were to emerge. No-one could have foreseen that lasers would be used to transmit the majority of the world's telephone and television signals, or to record and play back sound and vision using plastic disks, let alone the plethora of other applications that now benefit everyone," says Lord Broers.

A satellite navigation system on a motorbike
GPS-based navigation is standard in many vehicles
GPS (Global Positioning System) emerged out of a number of developments, such as the falling costs of launching satellites, advances in micro-electronics, and the availability of military funding.

As with lasers, the original plans for GPS did not include the myriad uses for which it is now employed.

"These advances involved many people in many laboratories. The idea that a single person can 'invent' a new technology is out of the question in these cases," he said.

Instead, one person's creative ideas need to be fitted into "a matrix of creativity being generated by individuals and teams all over the world".

The web has allowed the process of collaboration to work on a previously unprecedented scale, Lord Broers acknowledges, but such openness brings with it its own problems.

In the race

"There are dangers in collaboration, especially in the security of ideas - patents can protect ideas but necessarily give away the details when they are published," he says.

"Individuals have this dilemma. They need to be a part of a larger world and communicate with it, but the moment they reveal their ideas, they have to be ready to run fast or competitors will out-speed them," he said.

It is an issue that Lord Broers will discuss in more depth in his third lecture but, for him, the benefits of collaboration far outweigh the harm.

During his time at Cambridge University, Lord Broers says he spent a great deal of time emphasising the need for bridges between the university, government and industry.

"Without it one quite simply does not have the resources to be internationally competitive nor does one have the 'spirit level' that reveals whether or not one is even in the race," he says.

The second of this year's Reith Lectures airs on Radio Four at 2000 BST on Wednesday 13 April.

Reith talks focus on technology
06 Apr 05 |  Technology
When invention turns to innovation
10 Nov 04 |  Technology


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