ASTR 1210 (O'Connell) Study Guide


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Castle-Romeo Bomb Test

US hydrogen bomb test, 11 megatons, 1954.

The image above is probably what leaps to mind when the subject of "science and society" is raised. Nuclear weapons are the most dramatic embodiment of the power of science, and they evoke strongly negative emotions. Science, however, pervades almost all aspects of our society, and its net effects are highly beneficial.

In fact, we live in a scientific civilization. By that I don't mean simply that some people are scientists or even that most people appreciate science (because they don't). Instead, I mean that, whether we know it or not, we depend on science for our wealth and well-being; that almost all of our critical technologies are based on science; and that without science, we would be living in a very different, and much less comfortable, world. We are benefitting today from the intellectual capital produced by hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers.

In this special lecture, not covered in the textbook, we discuss the effects of science and technology on society and how our understanding of the basic structure and operating principles of the universe has affected human lives.

A. Distinctions

It will help to be clear about the terminology:

B. Conversion of Basic Science to Technology

C. The "Big Four" Benefits of Science/Technology to Society





D. Electricity: A Case Study

Electricity is ubiquitous today in all but the most primitive societies. The most obvious manifestation of electricity is in sophisticated electronics: smart phones, DVD players, personal computers, HD TV, video games, and so forth. But these are luxuries, and it should be easy to imagine being able to live comfortably without them---in fact, people did so only 35 years ago. We don't really need fancy consumer electronics, but we do need electricity. Our reliance on electricity is profound, and its use is so deeply embedded in the fabric of civilization that we mostly take it for granted. At least until there's a power failure.

Development of Electric Technology

Electricity is the everyday manifestation of electromagnetic force, the second kind of inter-particle force (after gravity) that scientists were able to quantify. Here is a very brief history of our understanding of EM force, divided between "basic" and "applied" developments:

Faraday's laboratory (ca, 1840), the real birthplace of the iPhone

E. A Brave New World

The cumulative effect of science-based technologies, including the myriad applications of electricity and electromagnetic waves, has been profound. Living conditions for most human beings have been radically transformed for the better since 1500 AD.

By every measure -- freedom, equality, wealth, health, safety, comfort, opportunity, meaningful work, and so on -- the present circumstances for the great majority of all people are an unprecedented improvement over the past. They are an improvement even over the lifestyles of the most privileged individuals in earlier history --- there aren't many sensible people today who would trade indoor plumbing for rubies and emeralds.

It's worth taking a moment to contemplate how different life was 500 years ago. You may not know who your ancestors were in the year 1500, but you do know two things about them: their lives were mostly not very good and not very long. The miseries of the 16th century are graphically depicted in this extraordinary 1562 painting by Pieter Bruegel. His visualization was, thankfully, exaggerated for effect. But look at the charts above as you ask yourself what your own life might have been like if you had been born in, say, 1900 -- a date only an instant ago in the context of all human history.

Technology alone is obviously not responsible for all the improvements of the last 500 years, but it is central to most of the changes in our material surroundings, and these are transpiring at an ever-increasing pace.

Examples like these demonstrate how important existing technologies are in shaping our behavior, our intuition, and our imaginations -- in fact, our entire outlook on the world around us.

F. Technological Excesses

The Dilemma

Technology is never an unalloyed good. Given its rapid emergence, it is not surprising that modern technology has produced numerous unforeseen side effects and difficulties. All technology carries risk. Powerful technologies are obviously capable of both great benefits and great harm -- the example of fire being the historical standard. They will frequently rechannel human behavior, with consequences that are hard to predict and can be deleterious. Technologies convey important advantages to groups or societies that possess them, and they can be used to oppress or exploit other groups -- as in the case of the Aztecs (see Study Guide 5).

As appreciative as we ought to be of the technologies that are the foundation of our material lives today, and as impressive as are new medical therapies or innovations in entertainment, there is a strong thread of discontent with technology that runs through our society. Some of this stems simply from frustration when technologies -- usually complex ones -- fail to work well or don't live up to inflated expectations.

But in the last 50 years, dangers attributed to science and technology have often been given more prominence than their benefits. People these days are often more suspicious than appreciative of science and technology.

All these threats, whether real, exaggerated, or imagined are consequences not of basic science but instead of the societal choices that are involved in developing any new technology -- which is always based on some perceived need or demand in society. The threats are mostly inadvertent---i.e. unforeseen by those who implemented the new technologies or grossly amplified by widespread adoption.

"Boomerangs," paradoxes, and ironies abound in the history of modern technology. Here are some telling ones:

These are all examples of appropriately recognized technological problems. But the hazards of technology and our ability to control them are often not objectively assessed. There are many cases where overreactions by the media, the government, or activist groups needlessly alarmed the public -- for example: asbestos, Alar, power transmission lines, breast implants, or infant vaccinations. Public concern in such areas was out of proportion to the actual danger. It became counterproductive and diverted attention from more serious problems.


How should we respond to adverse technological "feedback"? A first impulse might be to argue that the associated technologies are so threatening that we ought to suppress them --- but this ignores the abundance of benefits they bestowed in the first place. The problem, a difficult one, is to achieve a healthy balance that preserves most of the advantages while mitigating the serious disadvantages of important technologies.

Technology could, in fact, solve many of the environmental problems we face --- assuming it is carefully designed and properly applied. Failures to adequately address such problems are rarely caused by serious technological barriers.

Instead, continuing threats from technology are usually the product of greed, incompetence, indifference, absence of foresight, or lack of political will. That certainly applies to the central environmental threat facing us and that we take up next.

G. Technology's Ultimate Threat: Population Growth

The root of almost all of our environmental problems is not any one technology. Instead it is the inevitable product of all of them, and it is something that almost everyone agrees is a good thing: modern technology keeps people alive. Life expectancy at birth has roughly doubled since 1850. Without a corresponding downward adjustment in birth rates, the increase in the human life span creates an imbalance between birth and death rates.

  • The response to this imbalance is exponential population growth:

  • Exponential growth is insidious. A tiny 2% excess of births over deaths implies a "doubling time" for the population of only 35 years.

    World Pop Growth
  • The actual growth of the human population over the past 10,000 years is shown in the graph at the right (click for enlargement). The sudden increase in the growth rate since industrialization and the introduction of simple public health protocols around 1800 is obvious. And we have added over two billion people to the planet since the year 2000.

  • The potential dangers of population growth in the face of finite natural resources had been recognized since the time (1798) of the political economist Malthus:

  • Since we have begun to bump up against global resource limits here on Earth, the idea of interplanetary migration has been raised as a solution. For instance, why not colonize Mars? Mars has a surface area equal to the land area of the Earth.

    There is no doubt that unchecked population growth is the biggest technology-driven hazard facing the human race today.

    H. Science and Technology Policy

    "Technology moves faster than politics" --- Yuval Harari

    Can an enlightened government channel developments in science and technology in beneficial directions?

    Conclusion: technology transfer and trends are difficult or impossible to predict. Apart from obvious crises, the best policy for government is good, broad support of basic scientific research and moderate (but alert & intelligent) regulation/stimulation of technology in the private sector.

    And there is another fundamental obligation of a democratic society in a technological age: high quality public education. The danger of an uninformed electorate --- or, worse, government --- was nicely summarized by Carl Sagan in this 1995 quote:

    "We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces."

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    Last modified November 2023 by rwo

    Text copyright © 1998-2023 Robert W. O'Connell. All rights reserved. These notes are intended for the private, noncommercial use of students enrolled in Astronomy 1210 at the University of Virginia.