The Aquarius

Byron King

I have heard it said that: “Rome was built on hydraulic cement.” That is, the secret of burning lime and mixing it into a hard-drying, waterproof concoction that would bind stone together, was key to the expansion of Roman power. Not the least of Rome’s accomplishments were the aqueducts. These engineering marvels carried more water, further, to more locales, to serve more people than any other water diversion system in history, excepting only what has been accomplished in California in the past forty years or so. The movement of water down slopes of one or two inches per hundred yards, using only gravity and channels, without the aid of mechanical pumping, and over distances of hundreds of miles, gave millions of ancient people the opportunity to concentrate in cities, to focus their efforts on things over and above mere subsistence, and to build their empire.

Part and parcel of the decline of Rome was the loss of status over time of those who held the position of Aquarius, the engineers who laid-out, constructed and maintained the Aqueducts. For some reason, people simply stopped being interested in those ‘dirty-shirt’ jobs like maintaining the water system. As the Aqueducts deteriorated and failed, and water supplies no longer met demands, Roman life became more difficult. For this, and for many other reasons, common interests that had united diverse peoples began to unravel. Of course, Rome had powerful legions with which to defend itself. But over time the empire was less and less worth defending. And Rome declined, to be overtaken by historical forces of barbarism and cultural darkness.

What prompts me to think of Roman aqueducts, and the aquarii who serviced them, is the following article by William Broad in today’s New York Times (May 5, 2004). The U.S. is failing to produce adequate numbers of scientists and engineers to support its economy, with serious negative implications for the medium and long-term prospects of the nation.

The National Science Board has issued a report, noting ‘a troubling decline’ in the number of Americans training to be scientists and concluding that the trends ‘threaten the economic welfare and security of our country.’ The N.Y. Times report states that ‘other countries, especially in Europe and Asia, have realized that science and technology are crucial to economic growth and prosperity and are rapidly catching up to the United States in the pursuit of science excellence.’

According to the Chairman of the Board that authored the report, if the nation fails to make the right investments soon, ‘we’re going to be left behind in a cloud of dust.’

As recently as the 1970s, my own vintage of university training, administrations and faculty did not shy away from encouraging students to pursue studies in science, but they also insisted on certain standards of academic rigor and competence. There were science classes in which the professor would announce, on the first day, that he (almost always, a ‘he’) would insist on outstanding effort and performance from everyone, but that some number of students would in all likelihood flunk the course. I took such comments as a personal challenge, and as often as not received my best grades in some of the toughest courses. When I graduated ‘cum laude’ in a hard science major at Harvard, I thought I had achieved something quite special.

Little did I know or understand, and I could not have foreseen, that I would come to maturity in a nation whose fiat currency would be the ‘world’s reserve,’ leading to an economy of easy money, ‘EZ credit’ and low interest rates. This being the case, why study hard, to be able to comprehend and master difficult subject matter in nature and science?

From the looks of things in this modern economy of ours, all you really have to do is hire someone else to do the work for you, and hey, you can even pay them with borrowed funds. To the extent that anyone needs to attend an academic finishing-school nowadays, to confer the aura of higher education, one can simply borrow the funds to pay skyrocketing tuition bills, and then major in some nice, comfortable, low-impact, non-science program with the word ‘studies’ at the end. As for academic rigor? Well, it is only a lot of reading and study and hard work if you actually have to do it.

In this modern era, why search and experiment and create and invent, when you can just surf the economic wave of a rising real estate or stock market? Why save when you can borrow? Why conserve and invest, when you consume so far and so easily beyond your means? Why approach life in a measured way, when you can let it rip and speculate on the margin? After all, the rising tide will lift your boat. Won’t it?

Do you remember the advice that the older fellow gave to young Benjamin in the movie ‘The Graduate?’ “Plastics, Benjamin. Plastics.” Back in the early 1970s, I understood it to mean that Benjamin ought to enter into a career related to principles of chemical engineering, as applied to transforming petroleum feedstock into something else. But today?

The advice to go into ‘plastics’ would mean what? Today, Benjamin would skip out on studying physical chemistry, major in marketing, and go to work for a large bank with a consumer lending division that sends out millions of credit card applications to mostly unqualified borrowers. Yes, ‘plastics,’ the wave of the future. The tsunami.

And the aquarii wane.