ASTR 1210 (O'Connell) Study Guide
9. SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, & SOCIETY
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.
It will help to be clear about the terminology:
- Science: By my definition, science is the attempt
to understand the universe, to build a conceptual framework.
This is often called "fundamental," "pure," "unapplied," or "basic"
research. Most research in astronomy falls in this category.
Important examples of scientific accomplishment are Newton's theory of
gravity, Maxwell's discovery of electromagnetic waves, Leeuwenhoek's
discovery of microorganisms, or NASA's planetary exploration missions.
- Technology: Technology is the application of
basic concepts to solve practical problems (e.g. shelter, food,
transport, energy, medicine, tools, weapons). Technology may use our
basic scientific understanding but doesn't necessarily in itself
contribute to it. The word "invention" is often applied to
innovations in technology but not normally to scientific
discoveries. Engineering is applied science/technology.
Examples: structural and civil engineering, aeronautics, pharmacology,
or the Internet.
Technology always has a societal motivation, whether for
ultimate good or ill, but the main motivation for "basic" science is
simply curiosity and the desire to understand.
There is a strongly symbiotic relationship between the two:
Science <==> Technology. New technology provides new tools that
enable better scientific understanding and vice versa. Some of the
technologies essential to modern astronomy are described
in Study Guide 14.
Scientist: "Be curious"
Technologist: "Be useful"
B. Conversion of Basic Science to Technology
- Science now usually precedes technology
This was obviously not true for the earliest technologies (e.g.
fire, stone tools, cloth, ceramics, metalworking, glass), which were
developed through trial and error, building on intuition drawn from
everyday personal and societal experience. Trial and error certainly
still features in technology development, but the essential
foundations for experimentation since about 1800 have come from
- Critical Conceptual Path: For each
important new technology, we can construct a "critical conceptual
path" of the main steps leading to its realization. Almost all
modern technologies depend on a long list of discoveries in basic
science. Most will go all the way back
to Newton and Kepler.
Individuals like Galileo, Einstein or Pasteur have made important breakthroughs,
but progress in science inevitably depends on the contributions of
many people. For instance, a
recent study of the development of a new drug to fight metastatic
melanoma concluded that its critical conceptual path extended back
over 100 years and involved 7000 scientists working at 5700 different
institutions. Most of this path involved basic research disconnected
from immediate commercial or clinical applications.
The recent development of vaccines for the COVID-19 virus is a perfect
example of how basic research underpins essential technology. With
older technology, it normally took years to perfect viral vaccines.
However, the discovery of the structure and function of
RNA" molecule in 1961 began a chain of research that ultimately
led to the very rapid development, in only a few months' time, of
COVID-19 vaccines that use mRNA to induce human immune system
resistance to the virus.
- Key contributions of science to technology:
Methods: critical thinking, skepticism, rational analysis,
empirical testing, calculus, statistics, double-blind medical trials,
Knowledge: Newton's Laws of Motion (mechanics), thermodynamics,
electromagnetism, chemistry, biology, hydrodynamics, structure of matter, etc.
- The enabling discoveries in the critical conceptual path are
often motivated by curiosity rather than potential applications.
This is why politicians and opinion-makers who insist on the
"relevance" of scientific research, especially in terms of near-term
applications, are misguided --- and may even inhibit progress.
"There is no 'useless' research."
Nathan Myhrvold, Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft Corporation
Experimental cathode-ray tube (ca. 1875): forerunner
of X-ray and TV tubes.
- The time scale for conversion of basic discoveries to useful
technologies varies enormously
- X-Rays (1895): X-Rays
were accidentally discovered by Roentgen in the course of basic
research on the physics of electromagnetic waves using cathode
ray tubes like the one above. Click here for a sample 1896 X-ray. Conversion time to medical
applications: 1 year.
This is a good example of a technological problem that couldn't be solved by
trying to solve it. A direct engineering approach to devising a
non-invasive mechanism to examine internal human anatomy would have
- Human Space Flight (1961): The
basic scientific concepts needed to build rockets and navigate them
through space had been known
since the 19th century, so the investment of large amounts of
$$$ (in both the US and USSR) solved the remaining technical problems
within 5 years of a political decision to go forward. Conversion
time: 280 years (from Newtonian orbit
theory, the essential conceptual foundation of space flight).
- CD/DVD Players (1982): Here, the
critical conceptual path includes Einstein's work on induced
transitions of electrons in atoms (1916), which was the
essential idea in creating the lasers that are used to convert
digital recordings into electronic signals. (Similar lasers are the
basis of data transmission by fiber-optic cables, now the main
technology used to drive the Internet.) Conversion time: 66
C. The "Big Four" Benefits of Science/Technology to Society
None of the refined, modern versions of human technology would exist
without the ability to record vast amounts of information and transmit
it from person to person and generation to generation. Through
medieval times it was possible to convey knowledge on a modest scale
through laborious manual writing and copying and some scattered
experiments with printed material. However, only the advent of
mass-produced printed books based
design of printing presses using movable type (ca. 1440) opened the
doors to the information revolution. Within 150 years, 200 million
volumes had been printed.
Books ushered in the modern age. Science depended on them.
Universities flourished because the ability to deal with large amounts
of specialized information in books became essential to society.
Beginning in the mid 19th century, information transfer proliferated
thanks to the automated rotary press and inventions like the telephone
and the linotype machine. In the last quarter century, the Internet
and other electronic technologies have accelerated the spread and
creation of information, but their societal impact has not yet matched
the monumental watershed established by the printed book.
"Genetic engineering," the creation of artificial life forms, is
nothing new. It has been going on for thousands of years. You will
be shocked when you click on this
picture of the most familiar artificial life form. Almost all
the food we eat is derived from deliberate human manipulation of plant
and animal gene pools. (The main exception is wild seafood.)
Until the mid 20th century, the techniques employed were
cross-fertilization, selective breeding, population culling, and other
"natural" methods. As our understanding of genetics matured
(ca. 1900-1950), these techniques became science-based. Eventually,
it became possible to directly manipulate cellular material
(ca. 1970+). Molecular biology now offers an ultimate genetic control
CONTROL OF INFECTIOUS DISEASE
The control of the microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi,
parasites) that cause infectious disease is one of the most important
contributions of science & technology. In fact, many of us would not
be alive today without it because a direct ancestor would have died
too early. The COVID-19 pandemic serves as a grim reminder of the
almost-forgotten dire threat of infectious diseases like bubonic
plague, smallpox, cholera, polio, and AIDS. As recently
as 350 years ago, communicable disease was thought to be produced by
evil spirits, unwholesome vapors, "miasmas," or other mysterious
agents. No one imagined that it was caused by invisible
lifeforms until Leeuwenhoek in 1676 used the newly-invented
microscope to discover microscopic organisms. Widespread
production in the 1930's and 40's of agents --
that could attack specific types of harmful bacteria was one of the
most important advances in medical history.
"Public health" consists mainly of systematic methods for
Electricity is the primary tool of modern civilization, yet
few people appreciate this or have any idea of how electricity
was discovered or converted to useful technologies. We
explore the development and contributions of electricity in
the next section.
D. Electricity: A Case Study
Electricity is ubiquitous today in all but the most primitive
societies. The most obvious manifestation of electricity is in
: 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
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.
Electricity supplies almost all of the power we depend on and
is essential for manufacturing, agriculture, communications,
transportation, medicine, household appliances, and almost every other
aspect of modern life. It's easy to overlook the ubiquity of
electricity by thinking only in terms of obviously "electrical"
One crucial example: all the internal combustion
engines used in cars, trucks, locomotives, ships, and planes require
electrical ignition systems.
Two others: refrigeration and water distribution and
purification systems. Imagine the challenges in providing food and
medication to the world's population today in the absence of
electrically powered refrigerators. Anyone who appreciates hot
showers taken indoors is an unknowing admirer of electric pumps.
Aside from the power itself, electricity is also the basis of nearly
all of the critical control systems we use.
The most powerful control systems in use today are, of
course, computers and microprocessors. These outperform human
brains in raw processing speed by factors of many millions and have
advanced to the point of duplicating or superseding human performance
in games like chess or in operating an automobile. They are used on a
scale that would have been inconceivable to people only 75 years ago.
Nonetheless, that generation also depended on electricity for control
systems: think of the
operator plug-boards of the "one ringy-dingy" era.
If our knowledge of electricity could be somehow magically subtracted
from the contents of your classroom, virtually everything you see would
disappear, except a bunch of naked people.
More seriously, if knowledge of electricity were magically subtracted
from our society, our economy would collapse overnight, taking our
Gross Domestic Product back to the level of about 1900. More than
half of the population would probably die off within 12 months,
mostly from starvation and disease.
The 2012-14 NBC-TV
showed an action-oriented version of what a fictional post-electricity
world might be like (though one where everybody still manages to have
An all-too-real threat to our electrical infrastructure
is posed by magnetic activity on the Sun, particularly "coronal
mass ejections." In July 2012
only narrowly missed a CME from a solar superstorm that could have
devastated our electrical grid.
Development of Electric Technology
Electricity is the everyday manifestation of
, 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
Faraday's laboratory (ca, 1840), the real birthplace of
- ca. 1750-1830: Coulomb, Orsted, Ampere, Volta, (Benjamin)
Franklin, and other physicists explore the basic properties of
electric and magnetic phenomena. Orsted and Ampere show that an
electric current moving in a wire could produce a magnetic field
surrounding it. Basic.
- Faraday (1831)
(experimental physicist): discovers electromagnetic induction.
Faraday discovers that a changing magnetic field could
induce an electric current. Together with the fact that an
electric current could induce a magnetic field, this demonstrates the
symmetry of electromagnetic phenomena.
This is also the key to the development
of electric generators
and motors, which convert
mechanical force to electrical force, and vice-versa, using magnetic
fields. These are two of the essential technologies of the electric
- Edison (technologist) and others (1830--1900) develop practical
electrical generators, motors, distribution grids, and appliances.
Many people think Edison "invented" electricity. He didn't.
He invented a large number of electrical appliances---including
the electric light, tickertape machines, the motion picture camera &
projector, etc. But these all depended on a pre-existing supply of
electricity and the knowledge of how to use it---all
contributed by basic research in physics.
- Readily available electricity stimulates the invention of the
fundamentally changing human communications (and, needless to say,
- Maxwell (physicist): in 1865, Maxwell deduces equations giving a
complete description of the observed electrical and magnetic (EM)
phenomena. From these, he predicts the existence
waves traveling at the speed of light and thereby
demonstrates that light is an electromagnetic phenomenon, one
of the most important discoveries in the history of science.
The fact that these EM waves can have arbitrary wavelengths
implies the existence of a broad
electromagnetic spectrum, which includes the
regions we now use for radio and television. No one had
even suspected the existence of this vast spectrum, which is
mostly invisible to our eyes.
- Hertz (physicist, technologist): accomplishes the first
generation & detection of artificial radio waves (1887). Both
Basic and Applied. After he demonstrated
the existence of radio waves, Hertz admitted that he could not see any
practical applications for them.
- Tesla, Marconi and many others develop methods for routine
transmission and reception of EM radio waves. Just as
important are new inventions -- such as vacuum tubes (1907) -- for
modulation of EM waves so that an intelligible signal could be
impressed on them. This leads to
(1936). All of our "wireless" technology today is
similarly based on radio waves. Applied.
- The development of quantum mechanics
(Basic) after 1925 leads to the
miniaturization of electrical circuits using solid-state materials
like silicon and the invention (Applied) of the
circuit (1959), which are the central components of all the
electronics in use today. These technologies are probably responsible
for at least 50% of our Gross Domestic Product today -- so one
of the largest contributors to our economic well being was developing
an understanding of how electrons move in chunks of silicon. Who
could have predicted that?
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
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 (exaggerated, we hope).
The trends in some important social indicators over the last 200 years
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
- Up to the middle of the 19th century, implementation of new
technologies rarely occurred in a period shorter than a human life.
- Today, technological change
faster and therefore more obvious. The best recent example:
smart phones, introduced only a decade ago, have already dramatically
changed the daily behaviour of billions of people.
- It is hard to visualize how rapidly modern technology has
emerged --- in only about 200 years out of the 200,000 year
history of our species.
Picture even the most far-sighted thinkers of the 18th century --
Thomas Jefferson or Voltaire, say -- trying to figure out how a
television set works. It is utterly foreign to the
familiar technologies of their era. Its operation would appear
to be "magic."
On a more personal note, think about this: When you get some kind of
injury or malady and you go to a doctor, you automatically assume you
will be effectively treated and usually cured. That's a new
assumption. It wasn't true throughout all of human history until
about 100 years ago. In fact, one historian of medicine noted that
before about 1850, "most people were fortunate in being unable
to afford treatment" --- because medical treatments then were often
brutal, counterproductive, and dangerous.
Examples like these demonstrate how important existing technologies
are in shaping our behavior, our intuition, and our imagination -- in
fact, our entire outlook on the world around us.
F. Technological Excesses
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
: Powerful technologies are obviously capable of both
great benefits and great harm
-- the example of fire
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.
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
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:
- 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. A few examples of benefits and threats:
A classic case of "irrational exuberance" over a new and initially
highly beneficial technology was the unthinking widespread application
of the insecticide DDT. Early use of DDT during World War II
accomplished a miraculous suppression of the mosquitos that transmit
malaria, one of the greatest historical killers of human beings.
But by the 1950's its use had been taken to
truly absurd levels and led
to serious unanticipated environmental damage. That, in turn, was the
genesis of the book that founded the environmental protection
Silent Spring (1962), by Rachel Carson.
A major unintended technological threat, one which played a central
role in the 2016 presidential election but which was unrecognized by
most voters, is the widening displacement of human labor by
machines and computers. This has produced major changes
in employment demographics, suppressed wages and added
social stress, which will only increase over the next decades.
Another rapidly emerging threat: the flourishing of organisms
(bacteria, agricultural pests) that
to the chemicals normally used to control them because of overuse
of the control agent. By eliminating their natural competitors, the
agents allow resistant strains to proliferate. Hospitals are more
dangerous places today than they were 30 years ago because of the
overuse of antibiotics.
weapons were, of course, always intended to be destructive,
and they were used as intended by the US to attack Japan in 1945 and
bring World War II to an end. But the dangers of radioactive
fallout -- the most serious large-area consequence of using
nuclear weapons -- were not fully understood until well after their
first use. Uncontrolled fallout effects greatly increase the
destructiveness of these weapons. In the wake of the US attacks and
subsequent controversies over weapons, fallout, and nuclear power
plants, many people came to wish that these technologies had never
been invented. Some argued that our knowledge of nuclear physics is a
bad thing. But nuclear physics also created nuclear medicine,
without which modern pharmacology, radiation therapy,
and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) wouldn't exist.
Biomedical applications of nuclear physics save millions of lives each
year. Vastly more people have benefitted from nuclear technology than
have been harmed by it (so far).
There may be no more timely example of an unforeseen technological
boomerang than the clearly emerging negative social and political
consequences of wildly popular
media Internet sites, which provide vast audiences for
unfiltered human expression.
- Most of the negative effects of technology are only
identifiable because of modern technology itself. Without our
sensitive instruments and diagnostic tools, we would be poorly
informed about the impact of environmental pollution on water or air
quality, the ozone layer, global warming, induced diseases,
radioactive fallout, and so forth.
- Amelioration of the negative effects depends on
science & technology. A retreat from modern science or technology
would produce vast suffering.
- The hazards of technology and our ability to control them
are often not objectively assessed. There are many
examples of appropriately recognized hazardous technologies. But
there are also many cases where
overreactions by the media, the government, or activist groups
needlessly alarmed the public (e.g. asbestos, Alar, power transmission
lines, breast implants, infant vaccinations) and diverted attention
from more serious hazards.
- There is a nice irony in this area in recent years:
Imagine the social media firestorm that would rage
around the following fictional headline:
"Government Scientists Inject
Radioactive Waste Into Faces of Helpless Victims."
Well, the government isn't doing it, but something like this is
happening. The popular facial treatment
"Botox" consists of botulinum
toxin---one of the deadliest natural substances known. It is
actually about 1000 times more toxic, gram for gram, than
plutonium. And people are eagerly standing in line to have
it pumped into their faces!
- The point is that if technology can make botulinum toxin safe
enough to use as a cosmetic, then it can make radioactive or
chemical waste safe enough to live with.
- 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, they are usually the product of
greed, incompetence, indifference, absence of foresight, or lack of
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.
- Without a corresponding downward adjustment in birth rates, the
increase in the human life span, which is mediated
by modern technology, creates an imbalance between birth and death
- The response to this imbalance
is exponential population growth:
The increase in population in any year is proportional to the
In any situation like this where the rate of change of a quantity is
proportional to the quantity itself, the solution of a
shows that the value of the quantity will "exponentiate", as follows:
q = qoegt, where e = 2.72, t is time,
qo is the quantity at the start, and g is the constant of
In the case of population, g is the net birth
rate, i.e. the fractional excess of births over deaths in a
The result is that q grows continuously and at an ever
The figure to the right shows a typical exponential function (click
See this article for more information.
The same formulation applies to a number of real-world situations. For
example, to a savings account subject to compound
The population will "run away," or grow without limit, as long
as the net birth rate does not go to zero.
Note that exponentiation cannot be avoided for any finite
positive growth rate; it is simply slower for smaller rates.
- Exponential growth is insidious. A tiny 2% excess of
births over deaths implies a "doubling time" for the population of
only 35 years. (The doubling time is inversely proportional to
the growth rate g.) This is close to the actual growth for the human
population between 1960 and 1999.
At that growth rate, starting from 6 billion people in the year 2000,
the total population would be 42 billion -- 7 times larger --
by the year 2100. It would be 290 billion by 2200. If ASTR
1210 scaled in proportion, there would be 7000 people in this class!
For an instantaneous estimate of the US population, click on the:
- 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 one
billion people to the planet since the year 2000.
This graph should scare you. For a little more context, consider
that the spike shown there constitutes only 0.00001% of the
history of planet Earth. And yet the humans born in that spike
have already begun to transform its physical character.
- The potential dangers of population growth in the face of finite
natural resources had been recognized since the time (1798) of the
Any fixed resource (water, land, fuel, air), no matter how
abundant, is ultimately overwhelmed by continuous growth of
Of course, as the population approaches any such resource limit,
there will be a negative feedback effect which will drastically
increase the death rate until the population stabilizes or decreases.
That will stop the exponentiation, but we obviously would prefer
not to rely on that solution.
Agricultural Revolution" has allowed us to stave off the
widespread famines that would have been inevitable if we had been
limited to 1950's technology over the past four decades. Nonetheless,
demand from the growing human population has already crossed
critical local resource thresholds in many areas, as attested by
famines and other privations scattered around the world. Population
impacts are even global in some cases. One of the most dramatic of
these is the catastrophic collapse of some world-class
cod), previously thought to be inexhaustible. Another is the
surge of African refugees into southern Europe, precipitated by a
decrease in arable land and mean birth rates that are as high as 7
children per woman. And human contamination of the Earth's
atmosphere is already affecting the
climate in the form of global warming.
The confrontation between finite resources, population growth, and the
possible mediating effects of technology has been the source of many
controversial studies over the last 50 years. For a contemporary
The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding.
Fortunately, the human population growth rate has slowed to about
1%. That's an important reduction, implying a population in the
year 2100 of "only" 16 billion, compared to the present 7 billion or the
42 billion that would result from a 2% growth rate. But even
this improvement will not be enough to prevent serious resource
exhaustion over the next century.
For instance, at this rate, we must find the wherewithal to
feed a minimum of an additional 70 million people (22% of the
population of the USA) each year, every year.
- 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.
At first, this sounds like a fine way out, assuming the technical
problems of travel to Mars and sustenance once we are there can be
solved. But simple migration to other planets cannot cure the
exponential population growth problem.
At a 1% growth rate, the doubling time for the human population is
only 70 years, less than a typical human lifetime. Suppose we reach
the limits of Earth's resources in the year 2100 and immediately start
sending the excess population to Mars. In only 70 years (i.e. in
2170) we will have reached the limit of Mars as well, despite the
tremendous financial investment made to move people there. Migration
doesn't offer much respite in the face of exponential population
G. Science and Technology Policy
Can an enlightened government channel developments in
science and technology in beneficial directions?
"Technology moves faster than politics" --- Yuval Harari
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:
- Obviously, it must first be able to recognize important needs and
to predict useful sci/tech initiatives
- Unfortunately, the track record of technological prediction is
dismal. For example, consider a 1937 US National
Resources Council prediction
of important inventions for the following 25 years (1937--62):
- A few hits---e.g. TV, plastics---but many more misses.
- The leading predicted technology was the "mechanical cotton
- Among the technologies not predicted but actually
developed during just the following ten years were: antibiotics,
nuclear weapons, nuclear medicine, jet aircraft, nylon, radar, and
digital computers. Oops.
- Perhaps the key technology missed in the NRC study was the
transistor, invented in 1947 based on developments in
the quantum mechanics of solid state materials. This was later
transformed into integrated circuits, microprocessors, and the myriad of
other electronic components that drive our high-tech world today..
- But the private sector can be just as nearsighted as any lumbering
In 1994 Microsoft, the Godzilla of software
corporations, decided the Internet was a passing fad and planned to
ignore it in product development. QED.
- In the early 21st century we are entering an era of technological
transformation, similar to that produced by physics & chemistry in the
20th century, based on molecular biology, hyper-scale
information processing, artificial intelligence,
nanotechnology, and bio-electronics. Few, if any,
scientists, government officials, or corporate leaders are perceptive
enough to accurately forecast what this will bring only 25 years from
now. As always, both benefits and risks have the potential to be
"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." |
Reading for this lecture:
Reading for next lecture:
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