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The Boston Globe

Ideas

Brainiac

What makes things ‘cool’

And more recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Some technologies still seem cool three decades later. Other just look 30 years old. What’s the difference? Apple enthusiast Jeff Porten has an interesting post on this question at the TidBITS blog. The post distills a talk given by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at a recent security conference, in which Tyson discussed different aircraft from the past 60 years—including the massive Saturn V rocket; the SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest plane ever made; and the Bell X-1, the first plane to break the sound barrier—and asked himself why some of them seem dated and clunky while others retain their ineffable allure. There’s some crackle to this question, primarily stemming from the fact that so much of the time coolness is nothing but novelty in disguise. A cool old thing is special, and it forces us to think more precisely about what “cool” really means.

According to Porten, Tyson’s theory is that “technology retains its coolness factor so long as it remains best-in-class,” which is to say: We stay delighted by stuff as long as no better version of it comes along. Nobody has ever made a faster plane than the SR-71 Blackbird, and it still has the power to wow people in person. As Porten puts it, “If we had ever invented bigger rockets or faster aircraft, then we’d consider the Saturn V and Blackbird to be historical artifacts, much like the Wright Flyer.”

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