Time's Harvest, Fall 1997

On the Relationship Between Science and Technology
David Bowen

Last updated: 11/24/97
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This is a longer response to Chris Parry's question about the relationship between science and technology. In Volti, Society and Technological Change, this is primarily dealt with in Chapter 4. Some of the main points in this chapter are:

  1. During most of history, there has been little systematic or continuing interchange between science, which primarily seeks theoretical or abstract models for natural phenomena, and technology, which seeks to make practical devices for human use.
  2. The interaction between science and technology has gone both ways. On the one hand, science knowledge has been applied to improve and even predict technologies. This is what most people mean when they speak of the interaction between science and technology -- the flow of information has been from science to technology. On the other hand, the flow has also gone from technology to science. [Bowen: It has frequently happened that technology has (a) made better instruments that profoundly affect scientific theories, and (b) has discovered new methods that challenge scientists for new theories to explain what happened. An example of (a) is that the invention of the telescope by Galileo led to better astronomical measurements, which made the prevailing idea of an earth-centered universe so complicated, that it led to the idea of a sun-centered universe, which was significantly simpler.]
  3. In the recent past, especially the twentieth century, the interaction between science and technology has increased.
  4. The path from scientific knowledge to practical devices takes a long time, and often has stops, starts, and changes of direction. This is what Volti means by its being "non-linear."

Volti has some specific examples of the interaction between science and technology, which I feel challenge some of his views, but which he apparently does not recognize. Specifically, I feel that, especially during the twentieth century, the most profound flow of information has been from science to technology. Below I expand on this idea, and give examples. I point out the examples included in Volti. None of this is to contradict points 2 and 4. Recently, there have been efforts, some led by government, to speed up the flow of information from science to technology. I do know that several recent theoretical developments -- fuzzy logic and adpative controls -- have started to show up in automotive products after only one decade, instead of the one to two centuries lag time that were common in the past. Also, I claim that theoretical understanding is becoming more important in developing automotive technology, although many of the automotive engineers I work with might dispute that. But to me the trend is obvious.

In my personal view, the lack of early interaction between science and technology was to be expected, because neither science nor technology covered very much area, and so the chance they would collide was small. As both science and technology have expanded their scope rapidly in the recent past, they have come into contact more often. My mental image, which I would like to turn into an animated graphic someday, is of a rectangle representing all of nature. Both science and technology started out (say, 2,000 to 3,000 years ago) as a few small dots scattered within this rectangle. One dot might represent making hand tools, which started out limited to stone tools such as cutting tools. In science, one dot might represent electricity, and another dot represent magnetism, and a third represent light. Over time, each dot started growing in size, representing increasing knowledge and ability. For example, hand tools were made out of metal, and a wider variety was made. Similar progress was made in science. In addition, new fields of knowledge and ability -- new dots -- appeared within the rectangle. Then as time progressed, as the dots grew they also grew towards each other and began to merge. When fields merge, typically faster growth results from the cross-fertilization of ideas and tools. For example, the dots representing electricity and magnetism and light have merged; light is now understood to be electromagnetic radiation. Merging resulted in rapid growths in understanding in all three areas, as well as many new technologies.

Another reason for the stronger recent interaction between science and technology is a particular type of change made by the computer. Before the advent of the computer, science was "reductionist." This meant that scientific theories could in practice be applied only to minute and idealized quantities of matter. When they were applied on a practical scale, the mathematics became too complicated to solve, so that predictions could not be made. So that science could only be applied to systems that had been reduced to such a small and abstract scale that the results were impractical. This was often held to be a fundamental limitation of science, but in fact it was mostly due to practical difficulties in solving equations. With the advent of computers, what has happened is that it has become possible to mentally divide a practically-sized object up into the minute pieces that science can deal with, and then to use the computer to solve all of the interactions between the many minute pieces, so that a practical object can be analyzed as a myriad of small, idealized objects, with the computer keeping the books on how those minute objects interact. This is now applied to the design of metal parts (Computer-Assisted Engineering, or CAE), to the flow of liquids and gasses (Computational Fluid Dynamics, or CFD) and to the weather. (Well, about the weather, so OK, nothing is perfect. But atmospheric scientists claim that the atmosphere is so large that to divide it up into small enoguh pieces would swamp present computers. But the next generation of computers is supposed to be up to this challenge.) So, with the computer helping to apply scientific theories to practical devices, the interaction between science and technology has increased even faster in the second half of this century.

In the biological world, the computer's ability to enable science to predict how large molecules will behave is enabling the design of new drugs on a faster scale.

One more point. I think that all of this is part of The Third Wave. The older methods of innovation involved a slow accumulation of changes, passed along from one generation to the next. In today's rapidly changing markets, this slow pace of innovation would drive a company out of business. Now, one cause of the slow pace of change has been that new technologies were developed by the "cut and try" method. That, is, make a change (often by accident or mistake), try it out, and see if it works. If a technology has advanced at all, the chance of an accidental change being an improvement is relatively small; most changes are mistakes. This leads to a very conservative practice, "Do it the way I say and don't ask." But once we must pick up the pace of innovation, cut and try becomes expensive and slow. It is much faster and cheaper to have a good idea of how a change might work out, before it is made. But this requires a theory -- it requires science. So the need or demand for the application of science to technology has increased recently. This means that there is money available, and that there are careers in this field. So it is only natural for there to be greater progress. The need for cost-effective innovation is driving science and technology together.

And, somewhat more abstractly, scientific theories are information -- information about how the natural world works. It is interesting to me that the first two of Toffler's waves of change are named after technologies (or perhaps more accurately a set of technologies) -- Agricultural Society after agriculture and Industrial Society after industy. And these are not only Toffler's names, these are the names that all analysts give them. [For me, there is a suggestion in this that technology is a very fundamental characteristic, perhaps even a determining characteristic, of a society.) Will the Third Wave turn out to be, as so many are calling it, the Information Age? Then theoretical knowledge, such as scientific knowledge, will be a fundamental characteristic, perhaps even a determining characteristic.

Now, here are some specific twentieth-century examples of technologies that were predicted in advance from scientific theories, or at least on the basis of abstract principles (this last quibble is for the microchip example).

One counter-example, at least during the earliest stages: many scientists felt that space flight powered by rockets would be impossible because there was nothing for the rocket engine to push against to make the rocket move. However, this turned out to be readily explainable on scientific grounds, and many scientific theories have contributed to space flight.

So, Chris Parry, that's the long answer to a very good question. Sorry it took me so long to get this together.