The recent inaugural start of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has once again raised issues of the public’s perceptions of science and technology and the purpose of either as an integral part of our society. News broadcasts led with the story of the possibility of this new mega-machine destroying the earth in Orwellian terms that, while getting attention, used fear of technology and the unknown to cause angst and concern among the masses around the world.
The LHC was switched on Wednesday, September 10, and shot protons through a 16.8 mile ring-shaped tunnel at the headquarters of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). The purpose of the tunnel is to explore the formation of the universe as it must have been at the Big Bang and learn more about the particles involved in matter itself. While hailed by scientists for the contributions to scientific knowledge, most people scratch their heads as to its purpose. After all, five billion EUROS (7.05 billion US dollars) is not pocket change.
The reaction goes to the general population’s concept of science. Their view of science is that its purpose is to produce technological change. That varies substantially from the scientists’ view. To the scientist, the purpose of science is to discover the truth about something. In the case of the LHC, they are not concerned with the technological advances that will be made by the discoveries emanating from this project. They want to know what happened at the start of the universe. The goal of science is purely internal.
Technology, on the other hand, while also a system of knowledge, is purely external. Its purpose is to develop useful things to advance the comforts, direction, and thinking of society. Technology operates within a social construct. The truth is that one or the other can flourish while the other languishes. A clear historical example of this is the water wheel. In the Middle Ages almost no one was doing science, and yet there were more than 700 water wheels in England alone. The water wheel was one of the earlier technologies used to harness hydropower to various industrial and personal uses.
Development of both science and technology react differently to changes over time. Technology will exhibit incremental changes and improvements over time. The steam engine is a case in point. When first developed it utilized only one half its potential by using the reverse thrust to operate machines. Further development allowed both the push and pull to be harnessed and greatly enhanced the potential for the technology. Computers are a modern day example. When first built the computer was large and bulky. Today a computer can fit into your palm that in the days past would have taken an entire building to house.
Science develops both incrementally and dynamically. Most view science as building incrementally with scientists laboring in a lab making small discoveries adding very slowly to the base of knowledge until one day we have a science or a technology that makes it worthwhile. Pictures of Thomas Edison applying more than 10,000 trials to determine the correct material to use for light bulb filaments come to mind.
Probably a more accurate version of the progress of science is that of Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn believed science worked within a paradigm. In fact, this word, coined by Kuhn, has come to be used in many contexts. Its true understanding should always be within the bounds of science. A paradigm in science refers to something that can be experimentally tested. A paradigm is a conceptual framework under which a group of scientists work. The paradigm provides at least three purposes. First, it specifies a certain belief about the world in which they live. Secondly, the paradigm establishes what constitutes a valid experiment within the paradigm and imposes that standard across the discipline. Lastly, it gives scientists some idea of what outstanding puzzles they should be able to solve.
Kuhn believed that a paradigm is following within a discipline with each scientist adding incrementally to that paradigm until something monumental happens that shakes the faith in the paradigm so badly that a new paradigm arises to take its place. This he called a scientific revolution.
Consider this in terms of the Copernican Revolution. Prior to Copernicus’ writings the paradigm was a geo-centric (earth centered) view with the earth at the center of a divine creation and man as the crown of that creation. This belief was at the core of the church’s belief for generations. To deny that truth was to deny God and the Bible. This was the paradigm under which scientific inquiry was conducted. What was considered as scientific inquiry met those standards. Even the puzzles considered have to work within the framework of the paradigm.
Copernicus’s “De Revolutionibus” with its proposal that the sun was the center of the universe (heliocentric) immediately put science at odds with religion and the church. This confrontation still continues to this day. Science is viewed an anti-God.
Scientific revolutions in subsequent years have further exacerbated the chasm between religion, the Bible, and science. Newton’s physics, Darwin’s Origin of Species, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity have offered reasonable explanations for why the universe is the way it is. This ongoing battle between the two sides has encouraged the present understanding men have about the role of science and technology.
Technology is still feared as an entity that will somehow control us and determine our destiny. The age of the computer was hailed as a means to taking over our lives and replacing us with a machine. Technology is an amazing social convention because that fear still resonates among workers who fear being replaced with a robot.
True science is still about finding truth. When President John F. Kennedy targeted a moon launch for the United States, its purpose was mainly about exploration to see what was there. It was purely scientific in nature. Sure, a good many technological advances came our way as a result, but these took years to develop.
In the years to come, who knows what great information and discoveries may come from the Large Hadron Collider? Will it prove to be the holy grail of cosmic science? Will it spawn a new scientific revolution? Time will tell but fearing the advent of new technology will not prevent its coming.