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Science from technology

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An immediate proposition suggests itself: perhaps all science is simply an intensified form of technology. generated by the matenal needs of society. This has been a major contention of Marxist theory, ever since it was proposed unequivocally by Bons Hessen at a famous meeting in London in toga.

This thesis is closely connected, of course. with the general body of Marxist thought, and cannot be discussed in full without reference to the whole conceptual apparatus of dialectic materialism and the role of science and technology in the class struggle. But it can he treated as a hypothesis worthy of empirical test.

The standard ease in favor of the Hessen thesis is the history of the steam engine. This immensely influential technology was developed from the late seventeenth century until about the middle of the nineteenth-century by essentially practical men, using the traditional craft skills of the mechanical engineer.

Although this development was undoubtedly indebted to academic science for a few key ideas, such as’ the power of the vacuum’, and the latent heat of steam, it was mostly earned out by trial and error, in the light of day-to-day experience, without recourse to abstract analysis.

These were men very close to the material, technical base of the society of their day. and were simply responding to the commercial need for a means of pumping water out of deepening mints.

The capitalist entrepreneurs who fostered this development were not in the least interested in science: they asked only for profitability and pragmatically by its technological achievements.

From this time onwards, thermodynamics was available as a  theoretical discipline for the design of new industrial products to fulfil new national and commercial needs – the internal combustion engine for road vehicles, the steam turbine for electric power generation and for ship propulsion, and eventually the turbojet engine for military and mil aircraft.

But It was more than a resource for technological the laws of thermodynamics were reformulated in abstract form, and became the basis for new branches of academic science such as low-temperature physics, physical chemistry and meteorology.

Thus we may say that a considerable proportion of our present understanding of the natural world can be traced back to the desperate need for some means of pumping water out of mines, and thus maintaining the profitability of a highly capitalized industry.

This case history of a technology-based science, which can be paralleled in other fields of engineering. agriculture and medicine, is good evidence in support of the Hessen thesis.

But this thesis completely fails to explain the development of science-based technologies, such as the electrical and nuclear power industries, which did not grow out of pre-existing techniques, and were not generated by research and invention directed towards meeting a perceived need.

No amount of commercial demand for a means of transmitting information and energy instantaneously to a great distance, or military demand for an explosive that would destroy a whole city. could have produced these technologies before the discovery of the scientific principles on which they were later based – and it is quite clear from the historical record that the scientists who made these discoveries did not have these applications in mind.

Indeed, the characteristics of most science-based technologies indicate quite a different model for the social role of science.

Such technologies are fundamentally innovative in that they evolve into the means of attaining technical goals that were previously regarded as quite impossible to approach except by magic.Hand, Commercial, Science And Technology, Data, Cloud


Imagine, for example. what people would think of the idea of transmitting speech instantaneously to the other side of the world, before the invention of the electric telegraph and telephone.

These capabilities arc not only unprecedented; they are also unpredictable in principle, since they do not arise by the imaginative extrapolation of existing techniques but by the exploitation of apparently irrelevant discoveries.

These characteristics make such technologies profoundly revolutionary, and yet beyond conscious control.

There is no need to emphasize the extent to which they have transformed the everyday life and means of production in all advanced industrial societies — a transformation that eventually extends to the political and social structure of those societies.

But the control over nature, and over other people, that can be exercised by means of advanced technologies does not apply to the evolution of those technologies themselves.

A ruling class may try to appropriate the applications of basic science embodied in such instruments of authority as a television set or a guided missile, but it has no means of directing or foreseeing future discoverers which may radically change its own position .

Various sciences may acquire unchallengeable paradigms on which to base mature and efficacious technologies. but the notion of finalization — the deliberate choice of the ends to be achieved by the further pursuit of these sciences — is an illusion.

Thus, paradoxically, the greater the certainty and power with which known scientific technologies can be applied to existing situations, the greater the uncertainty and sense of powerlessness that scientific progress introduces into social and political affairs over a longer term.

In contrast, therefore, to the thesis that science should be considered subordinate to social and political forces, there is a well-founded view that it is an autonomous factor in society, capable of producing immense changes which could not be predicted solely in terms oldie interests of economic classes, entrenched institutors, or other conventional political agencies.

This factor is so indeterminate over a period of a few decades that it makes nonsense of all attempts to foresee – and to try to forestall – the course of history. On this view, a creative social role for science can only be accommodated in a pluralistic model of society which repudiates all historian claims.
The Marxist and pluralistic accounts of the origins of science and its relationship with technology carry conflicting political and social implications, which will keep appearing as we proceed further into the external sociology of science.

This was, for example, the underlying theme of the public controversy on freedom in sciences that took place in Bantian in the tows. But this polarization and direct confrontation along political lines is too simplistic, since it bears no relation to the way in which things go in practice.

Historically speaking, we observe distinct cases of both ‘science-based technologies’ and ‘technology-bawd sciences’ — and a variety of intermediate cases where technological demand has had a more or less important influence on the evolution of an academic scientific discipline

In reality, these categories merge into one another, and confound most of the distinctions between a ‘science’ and a ‘technology’. Should one really distinguish between the gel industry and the primer industry because the former has an ancient craft tradition

Is nuclear physics less practical and less socially relevant than hydrodynarrucs because the latter has roots in hydraulic engineering and shipbuilding? Is aeronautical engineering essentially more scientific than atchiteaure because it makes more deliberate use of recent scientific discoveries and research methods

It is difficult nowadays to find any material activity of society that does not turn to the production of knowledge by research as a means of achieving its particular goals. Thus. all technologies are in the process of generating their respective sciences.

Conversely, it is difficult to find any body of knowledge. however derived, that is not being scrutinized for its potential benefits in material form. Thus all sciences are the process of generating their respective technologies.

These processes are intermingled on every scale, from the laboratory and workshop to the research council and industrial firm, and in every dimension of interpenetration.


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