The fuzzy boundary between science and technology
James Kalb has recently interviewed mathematician and architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros. As someone who has always been irritated when people mistakenly think it the job of “science” to invent more and shinier consumer crap, I particularly appreciate the following remarks of Professor Salingaros:
Our educated world remains ignorant about the distinction between science and technology, unfortunately. Science helps us understand the universe and ourselves. Technology applies scientific results to master processes that we can manipulate so as to better our lives. It is also applied to kill people directly, destroy nature, and threaten our own survival. Or to save us from our stupidity. Tools can be used for either good or evil.
The actual history of science and technology is a lot fuzzier than the stark picture painted here. There’s often a fair amount of overlap between the two, and it’s often not straightforward to see where one begins and the other ends.
To give just a few examples, much of basic materials science dependended on preceding technological developments in mettalurgy. My own (former!) field of space physics developed primarily because engineers working on improved telephone communication needed better data on the Earth’s atmosphere. The interplay between science and technology in thermodynamics is legendary. In this case, some of the most fundamental scientific laws owe their discovery as much to the steam engine as they do to some abstract quest for understanding. To this day, college sophomores learn the science of thermodynamics by studying the technology of steam engines. Technology itself (in the form of better instrumentation) is often created to help us “understand the universe and ourselves” while science qua science is sometimes the tool responsible for the bad stuff.
None of this negates the idea that there are differences between what we call science and what we call technology. Or that there are questions we can and should ask about technology as distinct from science. There surely are such questions, and on some level we can distinguish between the two. But as I’ve noted before, presenting diverse, varied concepts as simple monoliths often obscures more than it illuminates.