Why technology is not science

The rapid development of thermodynamics and electromagnetism in the nineteenth century opened up a whole new world of technology in the twentieth century. One could say that the efforts of the physicists of the late eighteenth and mid nineteenth centuries paved the way for the technicians and inventors of the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries to create many novel and ingenious devices. This close connection between the physicists and  inventors has become a source of confusion in the sociology and politics of science; a confusion that can damage public’s understanding of science, and consequently, science itself. Therefore, the disentanglement of this confusion is a necessary prerequisite for a true appreciation of the nature and the workings of the scientific enterprise.

Science is blind to its future human utility

Science discovers the laws of nature blindly, purposelessly, and without regards to its potential human use. If it has an eye, it is to see the hidden secrets of nature. If it has a purpose, it is to connect what is known to what is unknown. If it is human, it is only due to its apparent confinement to the planet Earth. Any other intelligent species, regardless of its location in the universe will discover the same science. The fact that scientific laws are discovered by scientists, who happen to be human beings, does not make science itself human-dependent.

That science is void of any humanistic trait is evident from its history of development. It started in Egypt and Babylon, moved to Greece and India, went back to the Middle East, and finally landed in the West. As diverse as these civilizations were, and as violently as they clashed, the transfer of science was always inevitable, because it empowered the conquering civilizations with new means to rule more effectively. Unlike other culturally motivated characteristics of humans such as language, which has numerously been trampled to extinction by history, science has always strengthened on passage from one culture to the next. The only exception is the passage from Greece to Rome where it stagnated for almost two millennia.

Technology is application of science to human needs

Technology, on the other hand, applies science sightedly, purposefully, and humanly, and as such, is very much dependent on culture, politics, economy, and all the other characteristics of the human society. In fact the very word “technology” comes from the Greek word technikos, meaning art or artifice. Just as a sculptor uses the raw material such as stone and clay to create a statue for human pleasure and human consumption, so does a technician use the raw material such as wires and circuits to create a television set for human pleasure and human consumption.

7 thoughts on “Why technology is not science”

  1. Would “Computer Science” qualify as “Science”? I was wondering what would be the material in computer science. Especially when the inquiry is about algorithms, ways of computation and so on. Is it just Mathematics?

    1. Computer science is an extension of mathematics. And mathematics is not science, it is the language of science. It is the language in which theoretical physics, for example, is spoken. So, I would say that computer science is more of a language than science.

      1. I would say that mathematics (and thus computer science) is more of a science than it is not. It does differ in that it uses “proof” instead of “evidence”, but informally, it often starts with evidence. The domains are certainly different, one being real, and the other imaginary (abstract), but both demand the same reasoning. Maybe it is best to say that CS is Math and leave it at that, rather than saying that math is a language.

  2. Sadri, when you say “One could say that the efforts of the physicists of the late eighteenth and mid nineteenth centuries paved the way…” you are making people who were motivated to understand technological developments into physicists.
    But many of them were in fact engineers. Many of the founders of thermodynamics were engineers, such as Sadi Carnot who studied military engineering. Josiah Willard Gibbs was awarded the first American PhD in engineering “On the Form of the Teeth of Wheels in Spur Gearing”. There are a number of other great names that I could cite. So the growth of science and technology and their interactions are more intertwined than you write in the paragraph above. When after quantum mechanics was developed, you know that physicists dropped the study of continuum mechanics and aerodynamics and after that these fields developed mostly at the hands of people whose academic departments were in various branches of engineering (and applied mathematics mainly in the Great Britain). Think of people such as Ludwig Prandtl, Theodore von Karman, Stephen Timoshenko, Keith Stewartson, James Lighhill and others.

    1. Stan, I am talking about science and technology, not scientists and engineers. There is a huge difference. As you rightly point out, sometimes science comes from engineers (I can add to your list , the most theoretical of all physicists, Paul Dirac, who was an electrical engineer as an undergraduate). This distinction becomes less and less prominent as we move to the beginning of any discipline in physics. Gilbert was a physician! But he started the science of electromagnetism. Sadi Carnot was an army engineer, as you mention, but he started the science of thermodynamics. While the messenger may have varied background, the message gets detached from him, once it becomes science.

      1. Sadri, Your statement, “One could say that the efforts of the physicists of the late eighteenth and mid nineteenth centuries paved the way for the technicians and inventors of the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries to create many novel and ingenious devices. ”

        Your statement clearly identifies as physicist as the originators of the ideas, and I pointed out that many of them were engineers. I

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