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The Limits of Technology

Last May, a CT Scanner at ringside was credited with saving the life of boxer Lorenzo Bethea by revealing that after his bout, Mr. Bethea's brain was bleeding. The people doing the crediting work for the company that makes the machine, but never mind that. Mr. Bethea, unlike most of the other boxers in Las Vegas that night, elected to take advantage of the free brain scan. Mr. Bethea spent a couple of nights in a hospital and he was prohibited from fighting again in Nevada for a time.

On one level, this is a tale of a technological triumph. If Mr. Bethea hadn't been made aware of his condition after a fight characterized as "by no means brutal," he might have gone to bed that night and waked up with a heck of a headache, if he'd waked up at all. Or he might have fought a month or so later, and an opponent might have turned Mr. Bethea's brain to summer squash.

On another level, this is the story of technology that might be characterized as ass-backwards, because nobody examined Mr. Bethea's brain until someone had punched him in the head a lot. Where is the pre-emptive technology that might have alerted him to the likelihood that boxing would damage his brain enough to diminish his life?

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for CT Scans at ringside. I'm in favor of the new football helmets equipped with electronics that indicate when the guy wearing the helmet has suffered a concussion, too. I'm glad the engineers who design racing cars have come up with machines that fly apart when they slam into walls or each other. Those cars are less likely to crush the people driving them to pulp or set them on fire. I'm happy for the soldiers whose lives are saved because the technology at work on battlefields is so much more efficient than it was in previous generations of war-making.

But where is the technology that might be applied before the gruesome fact of the dozen unanswered punches to the head, the fiery crash, or the clothesline tackle, let alone the roadside explosion? Where is the discovery that preventing brain damage beats diagnosing it? That although limping away from the remains of a burning car is better than being trapped in it, not crashing at all is better still? That preventing war beats efficiently handling its damage?

I await the science. I probably shouldn't hold my breath.

This program aired on August 30, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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