A Posteriori

Attempts to grapple with and elucidate empirical knowledge

Science: Not just a vehicle for technology January 10, 2010

Filed under: General Physics,Public Policy — Rāhul @ 00:14

Modern life is linked inextricably to Science and Technology. Those two words, although very different in origin and meaning are so intertwined today that their history makes interesting reading. The Merriam Webster online dictionary defines Technology as the practical application of knowledge and Science as a system of knowledge covering general truths or laws that is capable of making falsifiable predictions. This definition suggests that Science creates knowledge which then propagates into Technology that is used to enrich our lives. But the relationship between the two is not always so clearly unidirectional.

2009 was celebrated worldwide as the International year of Astronomy because it was the 400th anniversary of the great Italian physicist Galileo Galilei setting about building his “spyglass” which he soon improved to discover the satellites of Jupiter, sun-spots and the phases of Venus. Galileo did all this without a scientific understanding of the propagation of light which had to wait for Isaac Newton. Instead, the technology of the telescope advanced by continued experimentation, enough for Galileo and others to gather sufficient empirical evidence for a then fledgling theory, that the earth is not the centre of the universe.

Against popular belief of the time, Nikolaus Copernicus in the 16th century had proposed that it is the earth that revolves around the sun and not vice-versa. However, it wasn’t until the preponderance of astronomical evidence gathered by telescopic observations a century later that Copernicus could be proved right. The technology of the telescope completed the most important step in the elevation of Copernicus’ proposal to the level of scientific theory. An overwhelming amount of data was gathered, all of which supported Copernicus’ idea over the model placing the earth at the center of the universe, thus convincing all rational sceptics of its merits. In this case, the advance of technology allowed us to see farther and deeper into nature’s mysteries, thus revealing scientific facts.

On the other hand, modern day technologies are inextricably linked to scientific advances. Quantum theory led to our understanding of semiconductor electronics without which the computer industry wouldn’t have taken off. General relativity allowed us to understand gravity well enough to build spacecrafts that put a human being on the moon. Enhanced understanding of the human body and the germ theory of disease led to the design of cures to many infectious diseases. Science and technology, it seems, are advancing together feeding off the achievements in each other, like a system with positive feedbacks. Improved technology allows us to probe further into phenomena that perplex us and lead to scientific theories that help design still better technologies that add value to life. But this relationship between science and technology was not always so close.

Technological advances have been a hallmark of human civilisation throughout history. Our ancestors controlled fire, learned agriculture, invented the wheel and used natural medicines, all by empirical studies that established their utility without any real understanding of the underlying principles. Despite this challenge, technology made tremendous advances, the importance of which is underscored by the fact that historians use technological strides to define particular ages of human history.

Modern Science also had a precursor in history. All ancient civilisations developed natural philosophy to explain the mysteries that surrounded them. While technologies added comfort to life, philosophical inquiry addressed the relentless questions of the mind. But these endeavours did not mesh effectively together to feed off the advances of each other like modern science and technology do. For instance, some schools of Indian philosophy postulated the atomic theory of matter long before it became a scientific theory based on empirical evidence. But the former cannot be called science because it was not based on experiments. The ancient Chinese on the other hand, made practical use of the observation that magnets always tend to align along the same direction, but they did not attempt to explain it using fundamental principles like we do now.

It was only post-renaissance that modern science, as defined by the scientific method, was born. Natural philosophy began to be buttressed by structured falsifiable experiments. Technologies increasingly made use of scientific advances and contributed to them too. This process of co-mingled development has led today to a situation where we cannot imagine excelling in the pursuit of either without also excelling in the other. But what are the consequences of this blurring of differences?

It is easy to see a causal relationship between technology and tangible benefits to society. In a capitalist economy, technological advances can be easily commercialised and the inventors rewarded handsomely. So there is tremendous societal interest in incubating and facilitating technological endeavours. But, science, on the contrary, is more of a personal pursuit. Although it leads  to technologies, its major purpose is to satisfy our innate curiosity and thirst for knowledge. While this is as, if not more, important than material progress, it is difficult to make the case for a result-oriented society to support science for its own sake, purely for the joy of exploration.

Hence, scientists in modern times have tended to use the interlinkages between science and technology and how advances in the former translate into technological marvels in attempts to win more societal support for science. While there is nothing wrong with the reasoning and it has been successful in increasing science funding, the question has to be asked if this is the right approach in the long run. By restricting the utility of science to the narrow channel of technological progress, we risk de-legitimising, in the eyes of society at large, the science that searches for answers to our basic questions.

Space exploration provides one of the best examples for this malaise. Although human beings have always yearned to unlock the mysteries beyond our earth and to go beyond the frontiers of generations past, we have now got used to justifying space missions for their perceived military or medical value. This has affected policy to such a great extent that we choose space stations that add little to our understanding or sense of our place in the universe against grander missions into outer space.

When the pursuit of science is justified in terms of technological dividends, it advances the cause of neither science nor technology. The greatest contributions to technological progress have come from science that is done for its own sake. Taking the long view to appreciate the historical differences between the two and the different purposes they serve in enriching human life can help us put today’s connections between them in perspective. The pursuit of technology and material progress is a choice. But scientific temper and understanding provide succour to the soul and is a necessity. We should be vigilant not to make support for the latter contingent on our desire for the former.


Trailblazing December 20, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rāhul @ 20:39
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The Royal Society of The UK is celebrating its 350th anniversary this year. In this regard, they have made available some of the trailblazing leaps in Science, as seen in the proceedings of the Royal Society over the years, freely on the internet. From Isaac Newton’s theory of Light and Colours in 1672 to Benjamin Franklin flying a kite in an electric storm in 1752, Bayes’ essay on chance in 1763, Maxwell’s theory of the Electromagnetic field in 1865, Dirac’s theory of the electron in 1928 and Watson and Crick’s DNA structure in 1954.

It was interesting to me how the only example from the 21st century they chose to highlight was a paper on Geoengineering. I wonder if this amounts to an endorsement for research into the field by the Royal Society. With the current international impasse on emissions reductions, it is very likely that Geoengineering will become increasingly prominent in the near future.

Partly due to my background in Electrical Engineering, my favourite paper among all the highlights is Maxwell’s masterpiece tying up Electricity and Magnetism into the unified Electromagnetic theory. Although the paper itself makes difficult reading today, even a cursory look betrays the rigour of the analysis and genius of Maxwell. Even today, it is perhaps the most elegant unification in history of forces and fields that were previously thought to be separate. For the sake of reductionist Physics and the intellectual clarity that goes with it, I hope it doesn’t remain so much longer!


Jump not to conclusions September 30, 2009

Filed under: General Physics — Rāhul @ 11:52
Tags: ,

Today’s post is on why it isn’t wise in science to jump to conclusions, at least not ones which we’re too hasty to take as facts. Yesterday, I was in the cleanroom, cleaning some wafer pieces for SIMS analysis. My samples were being cleaned at high temperature in a water bath, when I noticed something interesting. I whisked out my phone and got some pictures to illustrate my points.

I had 3 small beakers in the water bath, almost evenly spaced out, as shown in Fig: 1 below.

Beakers immersed in water bath with even spacing

Fig: 1 Beakers immersed in water bath at even spacing

After about 10 minutes, I noticed that beakers had migrated within the water bath to cluster together at one end, as shown below in Fig: 2.

Fig: 2 Beakers clustered together in the water bath

Fig: 2 Beakers clustered together in the water bath

The water was at about 80 degrees centigrade and the various stresses in it was creating many eddies and waves, but the question was why there was a net. effect towards clustering the beakers. I wondered if there was some reason why the forces on the beaker surface would vary in magnitude based on the amount of water beyond it. This might mean that the beakers will tend to cluster closer together as the greater force from the larger quantity of water outside the cluster than the force from inside the cluster would push them together. This would also explain why in Fig: 2, all three beakers didn’t move to the center of the water bath. There water-force proportionality argument works to keep the beakers closer to the edge of the water bath too.

I started exploring reasons why the quantity of water in the neighbourhood might affect the force on the beakers and cause clustering, but could not come up with any satisfactory answer. After all, the bombardment of high energy water molecules on the surface of the beaker (pressure) is just a function of the local temperature. Although temperature might vary radially in the water bath, that wouldn’t explain the behaviour. So, my hypothesis was proving hard to substantiate, even with the limited physics I employed. Then, I thought that maybe there is a gradient along the water bath towards the far side so that beakers move that way because gravity can overcome friction on the beakers when there is random agitation of water. To test this, I replaced the beakers as shown in Fig: 3 below.

Fig: 3 Beakers placed together on the near side

Fig: 3 Beakers placed together on the near side

If the reason for the 3 beakers in Figs 1 and 2 clustering on the far side was an effective force bringing them together, then, the beakers should now remain clustered. But, after a short while, the beakers moved as shown in Fig: 4 below.

Fig: 4 Beakers moving to the far side

Fig: 4 Beakers moving to the far side

The glass beakers moved over to the far side of the water bath while the Teflon beaker remains steady. We don’t know if this difference is related to the material or weight of the beakers or just due to their relative positions. But, from this observation, we can indeed reject any tendency to clusterise as the main reason why the beakers in Figs 1 and 2 moved over to the far side. There does seem to be a gravitational (or other) gradient favouring the far side of the water bath.  Even if there is a force favouring clustering, the gravitational gradient overcomes it, as seen in Figs 3 and 4. The Teflon beaker might not have moved to the far side in Fig: 4 because of a local energy minimum there. But, I am not certain because it was time for me to remove my samples from the water bath, and hence my experiments with the beakers had to cease!

This post just intends to illustrate why in Science we should remain ever-vigilant in seeking new information and never too dogmatic to re-evaluate the theories we might find interesting. My former theory sounded more fun to me, but further evidence pointed to something more prosaic. Prosaic, yet agreeing with evidence!