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Science & Technology

If you peer through a magnifying glass at a bug on a leaf, you may find yourself looking at a different world.  Tiny legs might work their way along the delicate structure, as firm as a human hiker across the solid ground itself.

This world takes on the color of the mind observing it when it becomes a story.  Some may see this new thing and ask questions – how the bug came to like that particular leaf, how it is able to grip it, and so on.  Others may be content reporting the details of the situation, such as the shape of the legs and jaws of the bug.

Anytime new perspectives open up the difference between science and technology is revealed at its basic essence.  Science is a practice of asking questions far more than providing answers.  Technology is about rendering that new information into something practical and useful.  That difference may seem subtle, but it is critical to understanding how new information shapes our personal and public lives in a world bombarded with new ideas and observations.

Detail from “The School of Athens” by Raphael

Science is, at its heart, a process.  The Scientific Method is a way of asking questions in an organized and logical way that produces logical and repeatable results.  The concepts were first laid out by the fathers of logic, Plato and Aristotle, the former arguing that fundamental principles drove understanding of earthly observations and the latter the other way around.  These philosophical underpinnings were turned into a formal process 1500 years later by Alhazen, working in Fatimid Egypt, who developed a system of repeatable experiments to explain and demonstrate the principles he was studying.  It was groundbreaking stuff.

Technology also has its roots in Ancient Greece, but was always seen as something different.  The word itself means “the study of skill”, the emphasis on the craft necessary to take learning and make a new gizmo or gadget.  Where science formalized inquiry, technology formalized the development of innovation.  Technology also went through considerable development since ancient times but has never been formalized to the extent that the scientific method has.  Interest in technology as a force that shapes our world was not heavily studied until the 20th Century, with the most popularly accessible analysis of the processes arguably James Burke’s seminal “Connections” series.

It is popular to believe that science provides us with answers about our world, something as clear as 2+2=4.  This view convolutes the important differences between science and technology, which brings up an analogy by way of a joke.

Ideas usually come to those who are busy working, actually.

Ideas usually come to those who are busy working, actually.

One of my favorite jokes as a practicing research engineer was that 2+2=5 for large values of 2.  It’s not idle schtick. Suppose you have a molecule that you want to measure the concentration of, and the device you have for doing this shows you two forms that have to be added together – say 2.4 and 2.4.  If the accuracy of the machine that allows you to peer into the world of this molecule is a bit questionable, you may only have one “significant figure” you can say is important.  Most people would write down the two results from the machine as interim results, add them together, and then round off the total as 5.  The “correct” answer”, however, is that you should round each result before you add them, but that doesn’t always happen in an Xcel spreadsheet.

A true scientist, however, is more curious than that.  The most “correct” answer to an inquiring mind is to write down “4” but to keep the possibility of 4.8 in their head.  If time allows, the logical next step is to inquire into that next digit and wonder what it would take to improve the accuracy of the machine to two significant digits.

To a scientist every result is only another question waiting to be answered.  To an engineer or a technologist, the “right” answer is 4 and there’s no point in being silly.

This problem is much deeper than simply applying new knowledge to crafting new gadgets that improve our lives.  Science in public policy has become a political issue in very key areas such as teaching evolution and the potential for global warming.  The latter is an example where very important questions about how much humans can change the world were rendered into clearly observable data and then built into a model that makes further predictions into the future.  This points to a problem that needs to be solved.

It is much more akin to “troubleshooting”, the way of life that is the technological cousin to the insatiably curious mind of a scientist.

"Unless"

“Unless”

In public policy there is no time to run the experiments through and wait for terrible consequences.  The curiosity made into formal inquiry is not useful as the new information gained requires action.  The process of science has to be left behind to a certain extent, becoming something much more like technology.  The “skill” in this example is crafting public policy that heads off disaster.

Politics, however, can use the questioning mind of science to introduce doubt.  That devolves quickly into a different kind of political craft, one of increasing power.

What matters most is the point at which a something allows a new observation about a part of the world to be seen as never before.  A magnifier that reveals the tiny workings of a bug on a delicate leaf is new information not experienced firsthand before.  Whether this leads us naturally to ask questions or state new facts, or some combination of the two, is something that comes out of the human mind at the other end of the glass.  Both are useful in their own ways.  But each has its own formal processes and perspectives that are best understood at their essence if we are going to create a fair representation of what is going on – and not force our own perspective or opinion on the situation.

For its part, the bug was happily crawling along until some big lunkhead disturbed it.  It is always good to remember at least that.

This post summarizes a number of topics that have been dealt with in Barataria before, and links are provided as necessary.  If you have questions please leave a comment!

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12 thoughts on “Science & Technology

  1. In Europe and New Europe (America), unevenly, everything happened at once between 1789 to 1914.

    Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, Scientific Revolution, American Revolution, French Revolution and Romantic Revolution. Capitalism, Urbanization, Agricultural Revolution, Secularization, Professionalization, Anti-Semitism, Biblical Studies, Archaelogy, Communism, Nationalism, Militarism, Democracy and Republicanism, Civil Rights, Human Rights, Civil Liberties, Natural Law.

    Since it all happened at once it is hard to figure out what caused what.

    • It is very hard to pull out all the effects at once, but the 19th century was indeed the time of tremendous upheaval. People starting living in cities far more than the countryside in Europe and the US. This was consolidated and expanded to the rest of the world in the 20th century.
      But it takes time for scientific advances to become technology, sometimes centuries. And to make them into standards enjoyed worldwide, well …. very long.

  2. The other institutions and ideas I wanted to mention include slavery, abolitionism, mercantilism, imperialism, women’s rights, Jewish emancipation, Evangelicalism, Calvinism.

    For European empires and the US there is the contribution of slavery to the accumulation of wealth for free, white people.

  3. The US is still a world leader in both science and technology, but I wonder for how long? This is one area where I see the rest of the world catching up to us quickly & I wonder how long we can keep our edge. It seems that many areas like smartphones we are totally out of the running. This does not seem to bode well for the future where everything is about new tech.

    • It’s hard to say exactly what our future is. We can expect the rest of the world to be right on top of us, sure, and we can’t expect to rule every category. But we have areas we do very well in, especially medical tech.

  4. I think most have some sense of a scientific method. However things get complicated as you lost me with your example.

    The little anecdotes of the history of science and technology I pick up are fascinating.

    –metallurgy is an ancient, practical skill. But of course it predates modern chemistry.

    –A Greek scientist had estimated the size of the earth’s circumference.

    –In ancient times people sort of knew that it took 9 months for a baby to develop for birth.
    It’s kind of heartbreaking to think about it, but some people knew sex had to do with a baby, but they didn’t know how the baby came to be. It was only until 1827 that we realized the female body has eggs. Supposedly a human egg can be seen with the naked eye. If someone would ask me to develop a methodology for isolating and examining a human egg, I would, off the top of my head have no idea. What I mean by this is that the methodlogy developed must have required training, special instruments, and some practical investigation.Historians probably have researched but I assume that centuries ago people thought that a baby just appeared.

    –In the 19th century doctors would deliver babies with dirty hands. They would sometimes go from the morgue to delivering babies. There was no sense of how infections were transmitted, until practical and theoretical knowledge was developed. Some of the new mothers or babies would develop infections and die.

    • I believe that all science and technology starts with observation. You see how things work and go on from there. To me, it’s the one thing they have in common.
      They diverge where you ask either “Why?” or “What can be done with this?” Perhaps the latter is more about invention than technology, but I think the principle is similar.
      Your examples also start with observation! Keeping your eyes open is the most important thing, IMHO. A curious mind can do just about anything, I say. At least, that’s what I teach my kids. 🙂

  5. I’m not sure if this is correct but I will hazard that mathematics and law and theology are areas where the scientific method has much less play. What I mean is that those fields, I think, grew mostly from internal inference or starting with certain propositions and then working out the consequences and permutations. I don’t know if you can do experiments in math, law or theology per se. Of the 3, law gets affected by humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Philosophy, shorn of all other fields that it used to encompass, would not use actual experiments or labs per se. They use mind experiements as examples.

    As we all know the physical sciences at one point decided to go a different route than metaphysical, epistemological and theological speculations. It just wasn’t fruitful anymore and the physical scientists, to some extent thought that the philosophers and theologians were nuts.

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