Why technology is not science

Once the discovered laws of nature are put to application, they put on a human face with all the cultural, political, and social cosmetics fashionable at the time. The same engine that drives a truckful of food to a flood-stricken community can propel a tank to bulldoze dwellings, schools, and people. It is technology (not science) that takes electricity, a fundamental force of nature, and either warms houses in the winters of Alaska, or electrocutes a death row inmate in Texas. The laws of chemistry will not change whether we use them to make aspirin or nerve gas.

The task of science is solely the discovery of the laws of nature. Technology (including medicine) uses these laws to meet human needs. Science is blind to future applications and is independent of any social, political, or economic conditions. Technology is driven by them.

The difference between science and technology is highlighted by the difference between the  biographies of scientists and inventors. Samuel Morse and Thomas Alva Edison had no background in science, but very much interested in getting rich by inventing gadgets that could attract many customers. On the other hand, Michael Faraday, despite his poverty and lack of formal education, was very much interested in – and simply curious about – the workings of magnets and electric currents. And this interest and curiosity drove him to acquire all the necessary scientific background before he could embark on some crucial discoveries in physics and chemistry.

With only a few exceptions, scientists have had to master their scientific fields before they could contribute to them. This typically – but not exclusively – involves attending universities and obtaining the  highest possible degree in their chosen field. Inventors, on the  other hand, have very little or no training in their “field” of interest. In fact, there is probably as much training in “How to become an inventor” as there is in “How to make a fortune.”

Nowadays the funding agencies of science and their decision makers expect practical applications (or potential for quick applications) from any scientific investigation. Yet the history of physics reveals that the most drastic changes in our civilization arising from applied technology were the progeny of some seemingly fruitless exercise of human curiosity. Who could have predicted that the tinkering of the lodestone and amber of the sixteenth century would give rise to the transmission of information over hundreds of miles in a fraction of a second?  Yet the technology of modern telecommunication is based entirely on electric charges, conductors, wires, and magnets, the toys of the earlier practitioners of seemingly futile exercises of human curiosity.

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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