ASTR 1210 (O'Connell) Study Guide


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 transformed radically since 1500 AD. By every measure -- lifespan, health, quality of life, liberty, wealth, security, opportunity, 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.

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.

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 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. 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.

Perceived threats include environmental pollution, habitat destruction, environmental disease, global warming, nuclear weapons, nuclear poisoning, artificial intelligence, human cloning, and genetic engineering (e.g. "frankenfood"), among others. Such problems have often been vividly portrayed in literature and other media going back to "Frankenstein," written by Mary Shelley in 1816, such that the notion of unthinking scientists unleashing disasters on the world has become a staple of popular thinking, as in the following:


The Fundamental Irony

The worst environmental effects are caused by what almost everyone agrees is a good thing: technology keeps people alive.

There is no doubt that unchecked population growth is the biggest technology-driven hazard facing the human race today. Population control is not a technologically difficult problem; effective innovations like the birth control pill are readily available. There are, of course, serious ethical, not to mention political, quandaries in attempting to control or reduce the human population, but it is becoming obvious that these must be intelligently confronted soon. Needless to say, prospects here are not good. You would be hard pressed to find American politicians for whom population control is a serious issue, let alone a high priority. In fact, policies on all sides of the political spectrum, including those embedded in the current federal tax code, are to encourage population growth.

G. 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 & 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 July 2021 by rwo

Text copyright © 1998-2021 Robert W. O'Connell. All rights reserved. Exponential function plot by Jeff Cruzan. These notes are intended for the private, noncommercial use of students enrolled in Astronomy 1210 at the University of Virginia.