The Hubble Space Telescope was put into orbit in 1990, astrophysicists had to look at the cosmos through Earth’s atmosphere, which is like reading in a book underwater. The stars were blurred and twinkling, muted by light pollution. “This instrument has revolutionized what we know about the universe, and the task of repairing it (which always involves the risk of damaging or even destroying its delicate components) carries enormous responsibility,” writes the American astronaut Scott Kelly in his book Resistance (Debate, 2018 ).
Kelly holds the record for staying in space, about one year on the International Space Station, but in his first missions he was tasked with repairing Hubble. The case of this telescope, a tremendously advanced technological device, is an example of the relationship between science and technology. It is often believed that science precedes technology, and that the second is a mere application of the first, but this is not always the case. In the case of Hubble, the use of technology led to great scientific discoveries: new solar systems, information about the age, composition and expansion rate of the universe, or the confirmation of the existence of matter and dark energy.
Science, technology and technology are closely related concepts, but their relationship is complex. It could be said that technique is a way of doing things, regardless of scientific knowledge, as proposed by Miguel Ángel Quintanilla, emeritus professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of Salamanca. “The techniques, which can be artisanal, but also artistic, etc., do not arise from the knowledge generated by science, but from everyday experience”, says the professor. Some examples are blacksmithing or boilermaking, which meet their objectives without the need for scientific knowledge: traditional blacksmithing is technical; the steel industry, technology. All cultures develop techniques, although not all science.
A notable example is the First Industrial Revolution, which in the 18th century came to change the world. “The science that theorizes the steam engine, which is thermodynamics, arose long after its invention. As Mario Bunge observed, the Industrial Revolution did not take place in Oxford or Cambridge: it was developed by artisans, not scientists, ”says Quintanilla. In its beginnings, the Industrial Revolution had a technical character.
Technology differs from technique in that it does use scientific knowledge as a basis. Although science is based on the search for knowledge, technology is a way of action, of solving problems, of acting on the world. Technology seeks to make things work, to solve practical problems; science, know how they work, solve theoretical problems.
In 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, where he pointed out the need to initiate a nuclear program in the face of the threat of fascism. The result was the Manhattan Project, one of the first examples of big science , or mega- science . In this project, which culminated in the production of the atomic bomb, a large amount of American resources were put into operation and it was collaborated with engineers, military personnel and great scientific minds of the time.
“Megascience is that which requires an accumulation of engineers and machines superior to that of theorists and experimenters. The products are both theoretical and engineering: the web is an invention of Tim Berners-Lee working at CERN, and the Internet as we know it is a by-product of the Human Genome Project ”, explains Fernando Broncano, professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science from the Carlos III University. ” Big science was an essential break in history.”
Big science is also an example of technoscience (although little science can also be done, on a small scale). “Technoscience is a new way of doing science, which has spread since 1980, in which technology is a fundamental component of research,” explains Javier Echeverría, professor of Philosophy and Logic at the University of the Basque Country. According to Echeverría, defender of the idea of a Techno-Scientific Revolution, technoscience can only be done with the help of technology, it requires an R + D + i system and is done collectively.
It usually requires large equipment and strong public or private financing. “It is not only interested in knowledge itself, but, above all, in innovation”, says the professor. Nanotechnology, biotechnologies, information technologies and cognitive sciences (collectively called NBIC) converge in technoscience. Converging technologies that, according to the US report Converging technologies for improving human performance , will take humanity to heights of development never seen before.
Techno-scientific institutions could be NASA, Big Tech (like Google and Apple), the Human Genome Project or CERN. Although the search for knowledge proper to science should not be forgotten: “There is technoscience,” says Quintanilla, “but we cannot stop judging research by scientific criteria, not only by evaluation criteria specific to technology.”
The love of knowledge must coexist with the search for utility. And society views both disciplines differently. “Science is well received by the public, with a certain sympathy; technoscience tends to raise suspicions, “says Echeverría. This is the case of genetic engineering, the atomic bomb or the environmental consequences of some of these activities; sometimes surrounded by suspicions, founded or conspiracy, of control on the part of the great powers in search of their own interests.
On many occasions, scientific activity is legitimized by its ability to produce technology. For example, to justify investment in space research (which some people consider useless), NASA usually reports on spin-offs produced: inventions that arise from this type of project and end up finding social and commercial utility: telephone cameras. mobile, robotic arms or clump implants, which were invented or improved during the conquest of space.
“It is a big mistake, how to legitimize love and sex for future children,” says Broncano. The legitimation should lie in the cognitive capacities that science grants to a society, which end up also influencing all other social capacities, including those of innovation. “It is a bad concept that we have inherited from the linear model: science-technology-economic development. Rather, we must go towards a model of complex capacities that mix theoretical (science), practical (engineering) and interpretive (arts and humanities) ”.
Basic scientific research, that which is concerned with the knowledge of nature and not with the resolution of specific problems, also contributes to technological development. This is the case in quantum mechanics and the subsequent physics of semiconductors. “None of the pioneers of quantum mechanics could even imagine that electronics would develop thanks to their discoveries,” says Quintanilla. From Einstein and Schrödinger to Instagram a line can be drawn.