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.
We are living today on the intellectual capital produced by 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.
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.
Symbiotic relationship: Science <==> Technology
- Science: Attempt to understand the universe, build a
conceptual framework. Often called "pure," "unapplied," or "basic"
research. Most research in astronomy falls in this category.
- Technology: Application of basic concepts to solve
practical problems (e.g. shelter, food, transport, energy, medicine,
tools, weapons). Use of our basic understanding.
Engineering is applied science/technology.
B. The "Big Three" Benefits of Science/Technology to Society
"Genetic engineering," the creation of artificial life forms, is
nothing new. It has been going on for thousands of years.
Essentially all the food we eat is derived from deliberate human
manipulation of plant and animal gene pools. 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, it became possible to directly
manipulate cellular material (ca. 1970+). Molecular biology now offers an
ultimate genetic control technology.
CONTROL OF INFECTIOUS DISEASE
The control of the microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi,
parasites) that cause infectious disease is perhaps the single most
important contribution of science & technology. In fact, few of us in
this room would be alive today without it (because a direct ancestor
would have died too early). But as recently as 350 years ago,
communicable disease was thought to be produced by evil spirits,
unwholesome vapors, or other mysterious agents. No one imagined that
it was caused by invisible lifeforms until Leeuwenhoek in 1676
first used the
microscope to study biological systems. "Public health"
consists mainly of systematic methods for controlling microorganisms.
ELECTRICITY (discussed below)
C. Conversion of Basic Science to Technology
- Science usually precedes technology
This was obviously not true for the earliest technologies (e.g.
fire, stone tools, cloth, ceramics, metalworking, glass). But most of
the important technologies of the last 200 years have been based on
earlier scientific research.
Critical Conceptual Path: For each
important new technology, we can construct a "critical conceptual
path" of the main steps leading to its realization.
Most will be found to depend on a long list of discoveries in basic
science; most will go all the way back to Newton and Kepler.
- 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 are not motivated by potential applications
This is why politicians and opinion-makers who insist on the
"relevance" of scientific research are misguided.
"There is no 'useless' research."
Nathan Myhrvold, Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft Corporation
Experimental cathode-ray tube (ca. 1875): forerunner
of X-ray, 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 concepts needed to build rockets had been in place 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
- 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 which are
used to convert digital recordings into electronic signals.
Conversion time: 66 years.
- 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 is much faster, and therefore more obvious.
D. Electricity: A Case Study
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.
The most obvious manifestation of electricity today is in
sophisticated electronics: DVD players, personal computers,
cell phones, video games, iPods, etc. But these are luxuries, and it
should be easy to imagine being able to live comfortably without
them---in fact, people did so only 20 years ago. We don't really need
these 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 (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.
Electricity is the everyday manifestation of electromagnetic
force, 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
One crucial example: all the internal combustion
engines used in cars, trucks, locomotives, & planes require
electrical ignition systems.
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 are used on a scale that would have been
inconceivable to people only 75 years ago. Nonetheless, they also
depended on electricity for control systems: think of the telephone
operator plug-boards of the "one ringy-dingy" era.
If our knowledge of electricity could be somehow magically subtracted
from the contents of this room, 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 1850. More than
half of the population would die off within 12 months, mostly from
starvation and disease. The 2012-13 NBC-TV
shows an action-oriented version of what a post-electricity world might
Faraday's laboratory, the birthplace of
- ca. 1750-1830: Coulomb, Orsted, Ampere, Volta, (Benjamin)
Franklin, and other physicists explored the basic properties of
electric and magnetic phenomena. Orsted and Ampere showed that an
electric current moving in a wire could produce a magnetic field
surrounding it. Basic.
- Faraday (1831)
(experimental physicist): discovers electromagnetic induction.
Faraday discovered that a changing magnetic field could
induce an electric current. Together with the fact that an
electric current could induce a magnetic field, this demonstrated the
symmetry of electromagnetic phenomena.
This was also the key to the development of electric generators and motors, which convert
mechanical force to electrical force, and vice-versa, using magnetic
- 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.
The invention of the electric telegraph (1830's)
(1870's) fundamentally changed human communications (and behavior).
- Maxwell (physicist): in 1865, Maxwell deduces equations giving a complete
description of electrical and magnetic (EM) phenomena. From these, he predicts electromagnetic waves
traveling at the speed of light and thereby demonstrates that light
is an electromagnetic phenomenon. This implies the existence of
electromagnetic spectrum, which includes the regions
we now use for radio and television. No one had suspected the existence
of this broad spectrum. Basic.
- Heinrich Hertz (physicist, technologist): accomplishes first
generation & detection of artificial radio waves (1887). Applied.
- Tesla, Marconi and many others develop methods for routine transmission
and reception of EM radio waves and modulation of these (i.e.
impressing an intelligible signal on them). This leads to commercial
radio (1920) and television (1936). Applied.
E. Technological Excesses
- In the last 50 years, dangers attributed to science and
technology have often been more prominently discussed than their
The average high school graduate of today is much more suspicious
of science and technology than appreciative of the riches they have
- Perceived threats: environmental pollution, habitat destruction,
environmental disease, nuclear weapons, nuclear poisoning, genetic
engineering (e.g. "frankenfood"), mutant monsters (as at right).
- All these threats, whether real or exaggerated, are
consequences of technology, and therefore societal choices,
rather than basic science.
The threats are mostly inadvertent---i.e. unforeseen by those who
implemented the new technologies or grossly amplified by
A classic case of "irrational exuberance" over a new and initially
highly beneficial technology was the unthinking widespread application
of the insecticide DDT, which was taken to truly absurd levels.
This led to the book that founded the environmental protection
Silent Spring (1962), by Rachel Carson.
- The fundamental dilemma: All technology carries risk; powerful
technologies are obviously capable of both great benefits and
- Fire is the obvious historical standard illustrating the
- Nuclear physics as a modern example. Many people would
prefer that nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants had never been
invented. Some argue that our knowledge of nuclear physics is a bad
thing. But nuclear physics also created nuclear medicine (e.g. using
radioisotopes as biological tracers), without which modern pharmacology
wouldn't exist, and radiation therapy, which saves hundreds of
thousands of lives each year. Vastly more people have benefitted from
nuclear technology than have been harmed by it (so far).
- 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, and
- Amelioration of the negative effects depends on
science & technology. A retreat from modern S&T would produce vast
- The hazards of technology and our ability to control those
hazards 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, power transmission
lines, breast implants, infant vaccinations, Alar) and diverted
attention from more serious hazards.
- There is a nice irony in this area in recent years:
Imagine the 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.
Of course, the technology must be carefully designed and properly
applied. Failures to adequately address environmental problems, for
instance, are rarely caused by serious technological barriers.
Instead, they are usually the product of greed, incompetence,
absence of foresight, or lack of political will.
The Fundamental Irony
The worst environmental effects are caused by what almost everyone
agrees is a good thing: technology keeps people alive.
- 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
proportionality (the net birth rate = the excess of births over
deaths in a year, in the case of population).
See this figure
and this article for more information. q grows without limit, at
an ever increasing rate.
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.
- For example, a 2% excess of births over deaths (sounds
tiny?) in a given year implies a doubling time for the population
of only 35 years. 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 by the year 2100. If ASTR 1210
scaled in proportion, there would be over 1000 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 rapid quasi-exponential expansion since 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.
- 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.
Demand from the growing human population has already crossed critical
local resource thresholds in many areas, as attested by famines and
other deprivations 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 fisheries (e.g. Atlantic
cod), previously thought to be inexhaustible.
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%, but
that will not be enough to prevent serious resource exhaustion
over the next century. At this rate, we must find the wherewithal
to feed an additional 70 million people (22% of the population
of the USA) each year, every year.
- There are serious ethical (not to mention political) quandaries
in attempting to control or reduce the human population.
F. Science and Technology Policy
Can an enlightened government policy channel developments in
science and technology in beneficial directions?
- 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
solid state physics. This was later transformed into
integrated circuits, microprocessors, and a myriad of other electronic
As a result, by 1990 "25% of the GDP of the United States
was based on applications of quantum physics" (Wall Street Journal).
Even in 1960, few experts would have predicted this.
- 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 and hyper-scale
information processing. Few, if any, scientists or government
officials are perceptive enough to forecast what this will bring only
25 years from now. As always, both benefits and risks have the
potential to be enormous.
- 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.
Reading for this lecture:
Reading for next lecture:
October 2013 by rwo
Text copyright © 1998-2013 Robert W. O'Connell. All
rights reserved. These notes are intended for the private,
noncommercial use of students enrolled in Astronomy 1210 at the
University of Virginia.