Humanist Society

of New South Wales Inc.

The Rise and Decline of the Natural Sciences and Technology

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by Dr. G.C. Lowenthal (distinguished physicist)

I am deeply indebted to Mr. Duffy and the members and friends of the Humanist Society for your willingness to put up with my ideas once more, it must be the third time: 3 times too many! Many thanks in advance for your patience. You will need a lot of it tonight.

You may wonder why I want to be so ambitious to talk about the rise as well as the decline of the natural sciences. Surely it is enough to talk about one at a time, and originally it was to be the decline.

It turned out that one cannot discuss the one without the other. As can be seen all around us, examples of rise and of decline of branches of scientific technology continue to this day. Are there more of the one or the other and why. Is it progress or just change?

Currently, science and the related technologies are still doing very nicely. The published opinion polls I have seen all demand more support for science which would have to include the technologies and engineering as shown in my title.

Public attitudes about scientific technologies are not and never have been governed by purely scientific issues but by their usefulness or otherwise for the public at large. The first X ray pictures showing bones in a living hand got enormous publicity causing both, the science and also the risks from X rays to be ignored.

At present, many people who had long been impressed by the usefulness of the achievements of the scientific technologies are becoming uncertain as to what that usefulness has come to be about.

It has always been the potential and actual usefulness of scientific technology which determined its popularity during the 20th century and hence its financial support from the government. Risks caused by these technologies were or were not ignored depending on circumstances as we know for motor car accidents, or low level ionising radiation.

True, the natural sciences have to stick to their quantitative methods, but to come to useful results, useful from the viewpoint of the general public they need technologies which will serve that public. Mathematics will not do.

Without public support translated into government support modern scientific research could not survive a day. But I have no time to go into the role of governments important as it is.

Of course there is usefulness and usefulness. Recent results of scientific research, the Big Bang, Black Holes, muons, pions and other strange particles are all useful additions to scientific knowledge. But their usefulness for the public at large is another matter.

These highly specialised scientific developments are not, on average as useful for the public as were scientific improvements to steam engines, applications of electro magnetism, not to mention wireless telegraphy and radio which served everyone not least the government.

Undoubtedly, extreme specialisations have some effect on people' attitudes towards science, but this is likely to remain neutral at this stage. One hopes these specialist innovations will be made useful in due course.

Most of the really popular discoveries of scientific technologies go back 100 years and more, but there always are two sides to every development with one side being anything but socially desirable. For example, it has recently be claimed that electric power generation has been interfering with the weather via pollution (greenhouse).

To give another example of harmful effects, around 1800, the mechanisation of spinning and weaving caused unemployment and starvation to tens of thousands, giving rise to the Luddite movement and eventually to the early trade unions.

The scientific establishment has always been convinced about the overall usefulness of scientific technology and so have governments and the armed services since WW2. Whether the public at large still looks upon science in the way it did 50 years ago is another matter.

Until the early years of the 20th century advances in science were seen by philosophers and opinion leaders as useful for helping to make life more secure and bring it intellectually and culturally to a higher level. Similar sentiments were already expressed early in the 18th century but as shown by the Luddites, things did not always work out that way.

Scientific and industrial technology did not grow overnight. They took many generations to come to fruition. Often it was one step forward and two steps back. Machines were invented when raw materials to be used by them were still in short supply, e.g. the spinning Jenny.

Complex scientific technologies develop slowly even at present. An important example is the control of salinity in groundwater. This has been a troublesome problem to agriculture with many mistaken solutions since before 1900. It remains troublesome today, but city voters remain mostly indifferent towards country developments while scientific research needs city money.

It is widely believed that scientific technology began to flourish In the 19th century. In a sense this was so. But there were several earlier periods, not as well known as perhaps they should be because proposed technologies never came to anything.

Some of you will remember the flourishing of technology in Alexandria in Egypt, between the 2nd cent. BC and the 2nd cent. AD, with its steam engines and numerous other relatively complex technological devices. But all this died away without trace.

The 13th and 14th centuries, perhaps rebounding from excessive preoccupation with theology during the Middle Ages, saw interesting technological speculations by many philosophers until this flourishing period was terminated by the 100 years rule of Black death.

13th century technological ambitions are best illustrated by referring to the writings of Roger Bacon (died 1290) who predicted the coming of aeroplanes, very large ships, other mechanical transport etc. but it never came to anything.

During the Italian Renaissance many philosophers and artists experimented ingeniously to improve artistic productions as well as other useful technologies.

There was Leonardo da Vinci in Italy with many useful inventions, but mostly incomplete. There was Agricola in Germany specialising on improving agriculture. But once again there were few lasting results.

That there were no results following any of these relatively short periods of technological speculations is not really surprising since all happened in a 80 to 90 percent agricultural environment with at most a few percent of the population was able to read and write.

For technological advances to endure and grow requires a substantial city population which existed in England since about 1700 (over 25%). In central and Eastern Europe city populations rarely exceeded 10 percent even by 1850.

At present we are going to the other extreme. Cities dominate everything. Technological developments "fall over each other" to accommodate ever larger city populations. They are slummy but generate relative affluence where there had always been near 100% poverty notably in African and Asian countries.

On the face of it this seems a good thing. After all, poverty was blamed as the principal cause of sin, crime and corruption since time immemorial.

Poverty should certainly be kept down. But we should not forget that human societies managed to survive in poverty since time immemorial. What appears to be undermining society relatively rapidly by recent evidence is not poverty but affluence, caused in fair measure by scientific technologies.

What is wrong with affluence is less obvious than what is wrong with poverty, but affluence appears to be far more socially destructive. As can be seen all around us, affluence undermines the family and social cohesion seemingly within a few generations, whereas poverty strengthens social cohesion. (see Thomas Mann, The Buddenbrucks).

When it comes to wealth I remind you of the Biblical pronouncement on camels and rich men.

What the Bible says about creation and the like need not be taken too seriously (though regrettably it all too often is), but what it says about human nature cannot be taken seriously enough.

Very few people appear to realise that we have been for decades on the wrong side of the Law of Diminishing Returns. What has been happening is that Innovations to gain efficiency are crowding each other out, leading to loss in efficiency rather than gain e.g. e-mailing or cars in traffic.

The validity of the Law of Diminishing returns cannot be proved like Newton's Laws of Motion. But it is no less valid for this reason though it takes time and thoughtfulness to observe the correctness of its predictions.

The two examples which follow are not the best but will have to do. Motor cars lost drastically in usefulness because of their vast number which makes parking in shopping regions often impossible.

There is also their excessive engine power, vastly beyond normal needs. Motor cars are tending to be more of a costly liability than an asset. Another case of excessive efficiency there are the numerous operators accumulating e-mail messages at a faster rate than they can be read with more and more messages being lost.

We should be putting on the brakes except that no one knows how to do it. Instead, powerful lobbies demand still bigger technologies creating monopolies claiming the outcome will be better than ever and being believed!! There are also the armed services demanding weapons for attack and defence, but that is a different matter.

In recent years , scientists and industrialists have claimed that science should be strongly supported because of its power to enhance the national income. It was science that make all of us rich. What could be better than that? Let me just add, no-one would have dreamt to make such a claim in earlier decades. Science was to give people a sounder judgement.

The outcome of preoccupations with commercial values has been that many technologies which expand rapidly but with doubtful outcome. This tends to make more informed people distrustful of so-called scientific-technological advances.

Battling for material improvements when surrounded by abject poverty as was done before the 20th or certainly before the 19th century makes sense. Battling for improvements when immersed in affluence is likely to lead to losses. Until relatively recently, the practical usefulness of scientific technologies and the many good and helpful things we owe them were too obvious to be questioned. Although even then matters were not so simple as illustrated by the foundation of the Nobel Price and there are many others.

In contrast there are many cases where scientific technologies do excellent work e.g. metal work or architectural or building work which is overlooked by outsiders and so not appreciated.

Coming back to the Nobel Prize, Nobel (1833-1896) made his fortune from the manufacture and sale of the powerful explosive; dynamite, used in wars since about 1870 with devastating effects. Dynamite was also highly useful in industry but that is precisely the point: when creating scientific technology good and bad commonly go together.

Nobel instituted the Prize named after him as an attempt to compensate for the destruction of lives wrought by dynamite. Explosives were not the only technological advance leading to severely harmful consequences as well as benefits. I cannot go into details even though this is no minor point.

To return to the objectives of scientific technologies, the experimental sciences introduced by Galilei caught on widely not so much because of their science but because of expectations best expressed by Sir Francis Bacon in England: Man should learn to use his mind to finally improve his lot which was brimful with hardships.

Scientists and their helpers were expected to use scientific methods to control the powers of nature which were causing diseases, harvest failures and other catastrophes to produce instead health and plenty for all.

However, there never have been innovations leading to 100% gain as I alluded to aprospos the Nobel Price. As stated by the great German Poet Goethe, the stronger the light, the darker the shade. What just happened in the USA is a verification. The more wealthy, the greater the loss.

Let me first go back to developments in England. As an island it did not need a strong army. In those days the army invariably interfered in politics as was evident in continental Europe. England could afford a strong navy which came to be used to dominate the world.

Thanks to its navy, England could concentrate on world trade without effective interference from other powers which was not the least reason for its economic and scientific technological advances and its leadership in the industrial revolution.

The industrial revolution owed much of its success not only to technological competency but also to the spirit of progress which permeated the leading sections of British society already throughout the 18th century, but also affecting other Western powers.

In England there was a long preparatory period when technological advances effected slow improvements to manufacture and communication with the latter being of particular importance.

Already before 1700, technological inventions effected improvements in inland transport via canals, better roads and from about 1770 on, inventive merchants introduced first wooden and then iron rails for horse drawn traffic which all helped to strengthen the English economy and the progress of the us industrial revolution.

Faith in inevitable progress was taught most enthusiastically by the French Enlightened philosophers, notably Diderot and Voltaire and their followers.

Although their contemporary, Rousseau thought otherwise about the benefits of technology and not without many good reasons, later philosophers and essayists notably Lord Macaulay in England were convinced that things were getting better and better progress could not be stopped. I leave it to you to decide who was the better prophet, Diderot or Rousseau.

Be that as it may, the 19th century saw a rising tide of scientific-technological advances each adding greatly to the usefulness of scientific technology, e.g. steam trains, ironclad steamer, but also advances in chemistry and related sciences, not least medicine.

But the early 20th century saw the British economic and scientific preeminence being challenged by an up-and-coming newcomer, the United States.

It was then known as the land of unlimited opportunities. A vast country compared to European nation states with vast natural and financial resources, vast wealth and a population dedicated to progress at any price.

This is not the place for an historical account I just note that from the early 20th century on USA science quickly reached the top of the scientific ladder.

An important measure for the quality of scientific performance are Nobel Prizes. Following WW2, the large majority of these prizes went to the USA, no doubt largely a consequence of the scientific training during WW2.

The USA was set not only to win the war but also to win the peace with technological blessings. The 1950s and early 1960s saw the natural sciences, mostly USA sciences at the top of the tree of popular appeal.

However, there were two weak links if I may put it that way. Excessive Specialisation and the Law of Diminishing Returns. Specialisation took science into ever more complex and "outlandish" theories and this in numerous directions as will be noted presently.

Scientific research went in for the VERY BIG, assemblies of galaxies and the expanding universe. But also the very small in both time and space: compared to human dimensions and hence hardly accessible to human understanding which was not helpful to make science more popular.

In many respects these were scientific triumphs, but one thing they are certainly not: readily followed by nonscientists as had advances in metallurgy or the transport sciences.

The general public was hypnotised with sensational claims about Big Bangs, black holes and nano technologies all of which looked good as head lines in the press and on TV - but only while the show lasted.

A few minutes later there is only a confusing collection of strange pseudo realities. What remains as real is the extremely high costs of these sciences, needing vast, complex equipment, accelerators as large as a town and satellites plus launchers which require entire cities for their operation and maintenance.

However, all these costly devices have a potential for harm which is generating a fair amount of uneasiness amongst a good many people. After all, accelerators and satellites are of great interest to the armed services and they are readily used for non-peaceful ends.

It are considerations such as these which in my view have brought many of the natural sciences into near disrepute among rapidly increasing numbers of people, especially of young people who increasingly turn to other occupations and professions.

It is widely claimed that this happens because scientific research is poorly paid. May be so, but in my early days, back during the 1950s scientific research was relatively much more poorly paid but had no lack of applicants probably because its prestige was high.

Ladies and gentlemen, I shall leave it at that and leave it to you to decide to what extent my analysis appears acceptable to you or not and what, if anything, could be done about these problems. Thank you for listening.

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