Friday, August 15, 2008

Science, technology, the silicon chip & social need

Tēnā koutou katoa - Greetings to you all
a candle flame

Isaac Asimov defined science as a search for understanding of nature.

The great dogma of philosophy that was laid down by Plato and Socrates reigned supreme till the middle of the 17
th century when Isaac Newton brought a new rigour to methods of scientific investigation. Since then, the search for understanding of nature, or science as we know it, has accelerated to well beyond the warp levels.

Benjamin Franklin described homo-sapiens as tool-making animals and carved the way for descriptions of technology that included the word ‘tool’. Technologists have since been described as tool-makers, a term that dates the start of such technological practices at about 70,000 BC when, it is believed, the Neanderthals had a degree of specialisation in tool-making.

It was not until the late 19th century that Thomas Alva Edison, hailed as the pioneer of modern technological research, made a quantum leap and fused the methods of technology with those of science.

Giants of human activity

So what makes the distinction between these giants of human activity, technology and science? It is similar to the difference between knowing how to make a candle and understanding how it works.

The demarcation becomes clearer when the technologist is asked to make separate candles from samples of tallow wax and fluorinated wax. Both are easy to make, but it takes an understanding of scientific principles to explain why one works and the other doesn’t.

The candle had been in use for thousands of years, but it only became the subject of scientific investigation when Michael Faraday saw it.

The birth of modern technology

Faraday’s experiments with electricity became a base for Edison’s research. In his unique effort to find a suitable substance for the filament of his electric light bulb, Edison introduced technology to scientific investigation. It was from this new and special relationship that modern technology was born.

Throughout the entire history of technology, the drive for most technological development has been a social need. For Alexander Graham Bell, both the scientific background and the social resources, such as transmission wires for electrical signals, had been in existence for several decades before he invented his telephone. Yet at a time when Bell had great enthusiasm for the development of his idea, the social need and general social acceptance of his invention were almost nonexistent.

Years before that, many experimenters had toyed with the commercialisation of similar devices. It took determination and fortitude for Bell to persist in his attempts to float his technology as a commercially practical venture. The fact that he succeeded was more a mark of his entrepreneurial genius, than his kill as an inventor.

Technology can create need

Dependency on the benefits of a particular technology can create a need. This happened when electric traction was adopted in the subway systems, like the London Underground, which coincided with the widespread development of electricity generation in the late 19th century. Until then, successful commercial generation depended on the development of other uses for electricity.

Edison’s electric light alone could not provide a continuous demand for electrical energy, since its use was confined mainly to the hours of darkness. The subway system sparked off a demand for round-the-clock electricity generation that became one of the most remarkable technological successes of the 20th century.

In less than 50 years, the cranky looking thermionic valve, a development of Edison's light bulb, that launched the age of radio and television, was supplanted by the modest transistor replicated in microscopic array on wafers of clinically grown silicon. This is now commonly known as the silicon chip.

Ka kite anō - Catch ya later

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