Scientific knowledge gave a significant boost to the Industrial Revolution in the course of the l9th century. Of no less significance is the contribution of technology to science. Indeed, science would not be at the highly sophisticated level at which it is today without the enormous support it has received and continues to receive from technology.
Perhaps we could have expected this from an aspect of the scientific enterprise: namely, the need to refine and extend our sense perceptions through instruments. Instruments are largely the creations of technology. The more complex and varied technology becomes the more sophisticated and powerful its instrumental potential. Consequently, with the evolution of technology the fields of exploration of science also expand in scope.
Consider such a simple looking thing as the lens: an ordinary curved piece of transparent material. Its fabrication is a work of technology. Its role in the unraveling of the universe has been vital. Had it not been for the lens, one could not have made the telescope, and the vision of the world prior to the invention of this instrument was far more incomplete and certainly inaccurate, based as it was on superficial impressions on the unaided eye. The stellar structure of the Milky Way, the satellites of other planets, Saturn’s rings and planets beyond Saturn, double stars and galaxies, and many other aspects of the physical universe would for ever have remained hidden from human recognition. At the other end of the scale, the whole world of minute structures and micro-organisms would have been beyond the bounds of human knowledge without the microscope, yet another contrivance that uses the lens.
Technology has thus enabled us to explore the extremes of the physical world. Galactic distances and the deepest recesses of matter at the two ends of spatial extensions. Likewise, one may consider extremes of temperature, from the very cold to the very hot, from the vicinity of absolute zero to temperatures of the order of a few million degrees. With technology, these have been produced and studied, enriching scientific knowledge considerably. It is technology that has permitted us to bring about situations of extremely fast speeds and very slow ones, thus enabling us to gain knowledge of the physical world under these conditions. What happens to matter when it is subjected to extremes of pressure, by exposing it to a vacuum on the one hand, and to enormously great pressures on the other? Developments in technology have made such conditions possible, and have contributed to our understanding of related phenomena.
A considerable amount of twentieth century science and beyond is indebted to modern technology. The physics of elementary particles relies heavily on the most sophisticated high-energy machines which are among the technological marvels of our times. Electron microscopes, instruments that can detect and measure substances in the minutest amounts, giant radio telescopes that can receive the faintest signals from the most distant galaxies, extremely fast photography, and, of course, all the power of the computer: these are but a few of the many supports that technology provides to the science of our times.
Technology has also enabled humans to confirm what we have been able to discover through the mind. Thus, much as we admire the launching of rockets and spaceships and applaud our landing on the moon, we should remember that the physics behind many of these accomplishments had been discovered by and known to many generations of scientists before. The laws of projectile motion and of gravitation, the overall conditions on the moon, the chemistry of rocket fuels, all these had been studied in past centuries. While it is true that new things have been learned by our entry into space, it is no less true that many of the physicist’s insights into conditions elsewhere in the planetary system have only been confirmed by that exploration.
Science is an intellectual effort. The mind plays the central role in the scientific adventure. But the human mind, unaided by interactions with the external world is somewhat like a huge sheet of blank paper with no pen and pencil to go with: that sheet is likely to remain blank for ever. If a simple pencil corresponds to such interactions, we may compare technology to a whole array of equipments including pens and colored inks, chalks and erasers, paints and brushes, straight edges and compasses, etc. With the help of these, the potential on the paper is increased enormously. The talented individual can now write beautiful calligraphy, draw precise diagrams, paint pleasing pictures, and even design intriguing figurative puzzles on the sheet. So it is with the impact of technology on science.
It is important to recognize this aspect of technology because, generally speaking, the word technology invokes images of huge factories, polluting smokestacks, automation, supersonic jet planes, flat-screen TV, cell-phones, and such. While these are no doubt expressions of technology, there is also this other dimension to technology: the field of human understanding. Indeed, it is not only in extending our knowledge of the world by providing assistance to the scientific enterprise that this dimension of technology serves us. By actually achieving what may be only theoretically possible, such as going beyond the earth or viewing the microcosm, we gain a new awareness and perspective of ourselves. We are raised to higher levels of consciousness.
September 18, 2010