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.
In fact, we live in a scientific civilization. By that I don't
mean simply that some people are scientists or even that most people
appreciate science (because they don't). Instead, I mean that we
depend on science for our wealth and well-being. That almost
all of our critical technologies are based on science. And that
without science, we would be living in a very different, and much less
comfortable, world. We are benefitting today from the intellectual
capital produced by hundreds of thousands of scientists and
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.
It will help to be clear about the terminology:
- Science: By my definition, science is the attempt
to understand the universe, to build a conceptual framework.
This is often called "pure," "unapplied," or "basic" research. Most
research in astronomy falls in this category.
- Technology: Technology is the application of
basic concepts to solve practical problems (e.g. shelter, food,
transport, energy, medicine, tools, weapons). Technology uses
our basic scientific understanding but doesn't necessarily in itself
contribute to it.
Engineering is applied science/technology.
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.
There is a strongly symbiotic relationship between the two:
Science <==> Technology. New technology provides new tools that
enable better scientific understanding and vice versa. Some of the
technologies essential to modern astronomy are described
in Study Guide 14.
B. 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. Almost all
modern technologies depend on a long list of discoveries in basic
science. Most will go all the way back
to Newton and Kepler.
Individuals like Einstein or Pasteur can make important breakthroughs,
but progress in science inevitably depends on the contributions of
many people. For instance, a
recent study of the development of a new drug to fight metastatic
melanoma concluded that its critical conceptual path extended back
over 100 years and involved 7000 scientists working at 5700 different
institutions. Most of this path involved basic research disconnected
from immediate commercial or clinical applications.
- 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 motivated by curiosity rather than potential applications.
This is why politicians and opinion-makers who insist on the
"relevance" of scientific research, especially in terms of short-term
applications, are misguided --- and may even inhibit progress.
"There is no 'useless' research."
Nathan Myhrvold, Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft Corporation
Experimental cathode-ray tube (ca. 1875): forerunner
of X-ray and 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 scientific 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 space flight).
- 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 that are used to convert
digital recordings into electronic signals. (Similar lasers are the
basis of data transmission by fiber-optic cables.) Conversion
time: 66 years.
C. 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 next)
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, smart phones, video games, 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 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. At least 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
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 probably die off within 12 months,
mostly from starvation and disease.
The 2012-14 NBC-TV
shows an action-oriented version of what a fictional post-electricity
world might be like (though one where everybody still manages to have
good hair). An all-too-real threat to our electrical infrastructure
is posed by activity on the Sun, particularly "coronal mass
ejections." In July 2012
only narrowly missed a CME from a solar superstorm that could have
devastated our electrical grid.
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
fields. These are two of the essential technologies of the electric
- 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
(1870's), also depending on readily available electricity,
fundamentally changed human communications (and, needless to say,
- 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
also implies the existence of a broad
electromagnetic spectrum, which includes the regions
we now use for radio and television. No one had suspected the existence
of this broad spectrum, which is invisible to our eyes. Basic.
- Heinrich Hertz (physicist, technologist): accomplishes the 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. A Brave New World
The cumulative effect of science-based technologies has been profound.
Living conditions for most human beings have been transformed
radically since 1500 AD. It's worth taking a moment to contemplate
how different life was in that era. You may not know who your
ancestors were in the year 1500, but you do know two things about
them: their lives were mostly not very good and not very long. The
miseries of the 16th century are vividly depicted in
extraordinary 1542 painting by Pieter Bruegel (exaggerated, we hope).
Technology is not responsible for all the improvements of the last
500 years, but it is central to most of the changes in our material
- 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. E.g. smart phones, introduced only a decade ago, have
already dramatically changed the daily behaviour of billions of
- It is hard to visualize how rapidly modern technology has
emerged --- in only about 200 years out of the 200,000 year
history of our species.
Imagine even the most far-sighted thinkers of the 18th century --
Thomas Jefferson or Voltaire, say -- trying to figure out how a
television set works. It is utterly foreign to the
familiar technologies of their era. Its operation would appear
to be "magic."
F. Technological Excesses
- Given its rapid emergence, it is not surprising that modern
technology has produced myriad unforeseen side effects.
- In the last 50 years, dangers attributed to science and
technology have often been given more prominence 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, global warming, 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 in the 1940's and 50's
truly absurd levels.
This led to the book that founded the environmental protection
Silent Spring (1962), by Rachel Carson.
A major unintended technological threat, one which played a central
role in the recent (2016) presidential election but which was
unrecognized by most voters, is the widening displacement of human
labor by machines and computers. This has produced growing
unemployment and social stress, which will only increase over the next
- 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 is 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, radiation
therapy, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) wouldn't exist.
Applications of nuclear physics in health care save millions 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,
radioactive fallout, and so forth.
- Amelioration of the negative effects depends on
science & technology. A retreat from modern science or technology
would produce vast suffering.
- 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 social 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. In the case of population, g is the net birth
rate = the fractional excess of births over deaths in a
The result is that q grows continuously and at an ever
See the figure to the right (click for enlargement)
and this article for more information.
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.
- The "doubling time" for the population is inversely proportional
to the growth rate g. For example, a 2% excess of births over
deaths (sounds tiny, doesn't it?) 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
At that growth rate, starting from 6 billion people in the year 2000,
the total population would be 42 billion by the year 2100. It
would be 290 billion by 2200. If ASTR 1210
scaled in proportion, there would be 7000 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 sudden increase in the growth rate since
industrialization and 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.
This graph should scare you. For a little more context, consider
that the spike shown there constitutes only 0.00001% of the
history of planet Earth. And yet the humans born in that spike
have already begun to transform its physical character.
- The potential dangers of population growth in the face of finite
natural resources had been recognized since the time (1798) of the
Population growth is the source of almost all of the environmental
threats we now face, including global warming.
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 privations 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
cod), previously thought to be inexhaustible. And human
contamination of the Earth's atmosphere is already affecting the
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%. That's an important reduction, implying a population in the
year 2100 of "only" 16 billion, compared to the present 7 billion or the
42 billion that would result from a 2% growth rate. But even
this improvement will not be enough to prevent serious resource
exhaustion over the next century.
For instance, 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.
- Since we have begun to bump up against global resource limits here on
Earth, the idea of interplanetary migration has been raised as
a solution. For instance, why not colonize Mars? Mars has a surface
area equal to the land area of the Earth.
At first, this sounds like a fine way out, assuming the technical
problems of travel to Mars and sustenance once we are there can be
solved. But simple migration to other planets cannot cure the
exponential population growth problem.
At a 1% growth rate, the doubling time for the human population is
only 70 years, less than a typical human lifetime. Suppose we reach
the limits of Earth's resources in the year 2100 and immediately start
sending the excess population to Mars. In only 70 years (i.e. in
2170) we will have reached the limit of Mars as well, despite the
tremendous financial investment made to move people there. Migration
doesn't offer much respit in the face of exponential population
- There are serious ethical (not to mention political) quandaries
in attempting to control or reduce the human population, but it is
obvious that these must be intelligently confronted soon.
Needless to say, prospects here are not good. You would be hard
pressed to find American politicians for whom population control is a
serious issue, let alone a high priority. In fact, policies on all
sides of the political spectrum, including those embedded in the
current federal tax code, are to encourage population growth.
population growth" movement faded out in the US decades ago.
G. Science and Technology Policy
Can an enlightened government channel developments in
science and technology in beneficial directions?
"Technology moves faster than politics" --- Yuval Harari
- 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
the quantum mechanics of solid state materials. This was later
transformed into integrated circuits, microprocessors, and a myriad of
other electronic components.
As a result, by 1990 "25% of the GDP of the United States was
based on applications of quantum physics" (Wall Street
Journal). Today, it is over 50%. 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, hyper-scale
information processing, artificial intelligence,
and bio-electronics. Few, if any, scientists, government
officials, or corporate leaders are perceptive enough to accurately
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.
- And there is another fundamental obligation of a democratic
society in a technological age: high quality public education.
The danger of an uninformed electorate --- or, worse, government ---
was nicely summarized by Carl Sagan in this 1995 quote:
"We've arranged a global
civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on
science and technology. We have also arranged things so that
almost no one understands science and technology. This is a
prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while,
but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and
power is going to blow up in our faces." |
Reading for this lecture:
Reading for next lecture:
March 2017 by rwo
Text copyright © 1998-2017 Robert W. O'Connell. All
rights reserved. Exponential function plot by Jeff Cruzan.
These notes are intended for the private, noncommercial use of
students enrolled in Astronomy 1210 at the University of