Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Science and technology

In my last post I spoke of how "science and scientifically-based technology" have changed the world. I had originally written "science and its corollary technology," which seems to suggest that all technology flows from a scientific understanding of the world. This is not true. Technology preceded science. The stone tools of our hominid ancestors were based on trial and error, not on any knowledge of the crystal structure of stone.

Fire-making, cooking, metal working, glass and pottery, agriculture, the domestication of animals, the wheel: none of these epic steps in human social evolution were based on the systematic investigation of nature's laws that we call science. The building of dams, canals, temples, fortifications and tombs advanced by rude experience. It is true that science had its tentative beginnings in antiquity -- think if Archimedes, Galen, Eratosthenes, and others, but their impact on technology was minimal. The Romans, who were less adept at science, far outstripped the more theoretical Greeks in mastering the practical arts.

Science firmly established itself as a way of knowing in the 17th century, but it wasn't until the 19th century that an unstoppable flow of technological innovation began to flow from scientifically-acquired knowledge of the world. The work of Lavoisier, Priestly and others blazed the way for a burgeoning chemical industry. Faraday, Maxwell and Hertz sparked the massive influence of electrical technology on our lives. The germ theory of disease revolutionized public health. And so on.

It is not quite fair to say that science and technology are now the same thing, or that technology is a corollary of science, but the two activities have become so entangled that it is hard to think of one without the other. Strip away all of contemporary technology that is not science-based and we would indeed be back in Charles Dickens' London.

Give this to Havel and friends: Science has also given us gas chambers, nuclear weapons, global warming, overpopulation, and massive destruction of natural environments. Knowledge is morally neutral. The use of knowledge requires human wisdom, something that, alas, has perhaps not changed much since the time of Dickens -- or Archimedes.