Cogitation 101: Science and Technology

You don’t have to go “full tilt Foucault” to believe that words have great power, and when wrought and wielded in certain ways can utterly fail in their assigned tasks to explain and enlighten. We face that situation today with the words “science” and “technology”—two words often used quite interchangeably, even in places where people should take some care (colleges, laboratories, the media).

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So what is the difference? Is Apple’s MacBook Pro a scientific breakthrough or a technological construction? Both? Neither? Something else entirely? Since it actually does matter, and will provide a foundation for further (real) understanding, let’s take about 500 words and a few minutes to go over some things.

Basic definitions = clear distinctions

Science is a systematized, evolving body (or “base”) of knowledge. Within a particular field, one can trust that following a series of steps will result in the outcome predicted. As evidence accumulates, an initial “hypothesis” or testable proposition becomes a “theory” of explanatory and predictive power.

The various pursuits of knowledge employing this methodology are what we know as “the sciences”—physics, biology, geography, chemistry, physics, and so on. Some 44 years’ worth of advances in computer science, for example, are represented by today’s basic, entry-level computer that’s incalculably more powerful than the primitive contraption that took Americans to the moon in 1969.

Technology is another thing altogether, the application of knowledge (or science) to problem-solving and service provision, primarily via manmade tools and devices. If we allow that science is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, for the evolving knowledge base, then technology is the practical application of that knowledge to meet people’s needs and solve their problems. Advancing solar energy science would lead to such technologies as more-efficient solar panels, for instance.

Science explains, technology performs

Science has analysis in mind, following which come generalizations, then the crafting of theories. Experiments are a way of controlling and defining discoveries, so excellence in science requires creativity, logical thinking, and the usual “x factor” that eludes definition, like Steve Jobs’ star quality and that of his game-changing iMac that revolutionized (modern) computing.

And technology? It brings design to the mix, as well as invention, production, process, construction, testing and measurement, quality control, and synthesis—thus possibly beginning the cycle again with new ideas, even new science, leading to ever-newer technology, and on and on.

To summarize:

Science studies specific subjects, technology applies what is learned.

Science analyzes the data, technology synthesizes a design.

Science is theory, technology is process.

It’s really quite practical and sensible, this “science and technology” lesson, as they both conspire to do us good at every turn even when we misuse them for ill. When the human imagination conjures up positive new ideas to replace the old, great things happen in science. When allowed to fly, creativity always takes wing.

That creative energy is amplified many times over as motivated parties all over the world turn sterile science into useful, productive, empowering, and, yes, fun technology. There’s the occasional nuclear bomb, sure, but it’s only slightly more dangerous than the testosterone that fueled the Manhattan Project, truth be told. Keep the latter in check, and we’ll likely have fewer of the former.

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