Saturday, December 31, 2016

Tech allows change?

Why do histories of science discovery include biographies of the discoverer? I found it revelatory when it was pointed out that it was new technology related to glass which allowed the discoveries made via the microscope and telescope.  I feel like I missed this because I was too distracted by text discussing who the discoverers were.

I’m not saying that the lives of the scientists are not worth studying. Discovering, via Keynes, that Newton believed in alchemy is relevant to many questions, the fact that one scientist could do his work because he was wealthy, that another was persecuted while others of his time weren’t due to where he lived, is all worthy of study, for many reasons.

What I am saying is that in trying to cram everything into a textbook, we run the risk of readers getting turned off. I was.

I was.

Most of what I’ve learned about history, and other areas, I’ve learned despite the textbooks.
What if curious children and adults were introduced to the story of science in another way? What if science history was framed by the history of the technology available to the investigators, rather than by the investigators lives?

What if telescopes and microscopes got a chapter, perhaps the same chapter? I didn’t understand it when the ability to see inside of cells was credited to a person rather than to a technology. The person deserves some credit, but since the person was the focus I lost sight of the fact that it was the technology that allowed the insight. Likewise the telescope: Galileo’s place is secure because he used the telescope more effectively than his predecessors, but the larger point, the take away, is that the new technology is what allowed him to see new things.
In an era where science funding is cut, this is not an insignificant point.

There was a Time Magazine special edition that discussed the results of scientific discoveries. The laser, for example, led to new audio/video tech, new eye surgery, and supermarket checkout scanners. This was more helpful for my understanding of the world, or of how science and technology can effect society, than if that discussion had been clogged with names. There was nary a one. So I could focus on the ideas, and I said, "WOW! THAT'S NEAT!"

What if a discussion of modern discoveries and theories was framed around how the cpu --starting with the 4004, say--- allowed calculations previously too complex and lengthy for humans to do? It’s true: in more than one field, calculations that would have taken _teams_ of researchers _years_ to accomplish can now be done in hours or minutes. And in field after field, ---iPhones to mass marketing to the age of the universe to cancer--- this has made all of the difference.

If you want to study how science is done, study how the great scientists worked. But if you want to learn how discoveries changed our lives, focus on the technology. Trying to do both at once confused me and discouraged me. Separating them opened the world to me.

Is it just me?

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