ASTR 1210 (O'Connell) Study Guide


Castle-Romeo Bomb Test

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 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.

A. Distinctions

It will help to be clear about the terminology:

B. Conversion of Basic Science to Technology

C. The "Big Three" Benefits of Science/Technology to Society



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.

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 applied developments:

Faraday's laboratory, the birthplace of the iPhone

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 this 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 surroundings.

F. Technological Excesses

The Dilemma


The Fundamental Irony

The worst environmental effects are caused by what almost everyone agrees is a good thing: technology keeps people alive.

G. Science and Technology Policy

"Technology moves faster than politics" --- Yuval Harari

Can an enlightened government channel developments in science and technology in beneficial directions?

"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."

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Last modified 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 Virginia.