By Robert A. Vella
For those who are scientifically inclined, this dissertation might seem simplistic and unnecessary. For everyone else, I hope it sheds some light on what technology is, how it is developed, why it is developed, and what drives its use and misuse. This is relevant to modern society because in these highly contentious and uncertain times technology is increasingly being perceived as a panacea (which it is not) or as an evil (which it is not).
In short, technology is the application of existing knowledge of our natural world for practical purposes. Today, it is known as engineering and applied sciences. In contrast, natural science (a.k.a. pure science) pertains to the search and discovery of such knowledge. Astronomy, biology, and physics are examples of the many natural sciences. The search for knowledge and the development of technology are as old as our species. From the earliest days when humans learned how to fashion stone tools and to control fire, we Homo sapiens have been venturing down the endless road of science and technology. Perhaps more than anything else, this trait is what essentially defines us.
In a strange twist of irony, our insatiable human curiosity which drives our exploration of science is also likely responsible for our inclination towards spirituality and religion. Why? Because the knowledge provided by science is limited. That which we do not know compels us. To fill in these gaps of knowledge, we delve into the non-empirical realms of philosophy, mythology , and mysticism. Where science is absent, rationalizations – both the logical and illogical – flourish.
And, this is how morality is cast upon science and technology. After the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, opposing philosophical sides lined-up against each other. Opponents accused its development as “evil,” while proponents justified its use as hastening the end of WWII and thus saving untold lives. However, the bomb itself is neither immoral nor moral. It is simply a technological device – a tool, if you will. How that tool is used or not used by people is where morality comes into play. Technology, regardless of its intended purpose, is as amoral as a rock.
Examining the history of the atomic bomb provides a textbook example for how and why technology is developed:
- The field of nuclear physics can be traced back to 1896 when radioactivity (i.e. radioactive decay) was discovered by Henri Becquerel while investigating phosphorescence in uranium salts. A year later, J. J. Thomson discovered the electron which indicated that atoms had an internal structure. Subsequently, research into the nature of radioactivity was conducted by Marie and Pierre Curie as well as by Ernest Rutherford. By 1905, Albert Einstein had formulated the concept of a mass-energy equivalence (i.e. the now famous E=mc^2 equation), and scientific understanding of the atomic nucleus was rapidly advancing.
- Over the next two decades, this scientific research had spawned various hypotheses on what energy source was powering the sun (i.e. nuclear fusion) and how radioactive decay could produce immensely powerful explosions (i.e. nuclear fission). In the early 1930s, the neutron was identified by James Chadwick as a subatomic particle having a similar mass as a proton but without an electric charge. Shortly thereafter, Enrico Fermi explained how the nucleus was held together (i.e. the strong nuclear force) and what caused it to decay (i.e. the weak nuclear force). Including the electromagnetic force, this theory became the ground-breaking standard model of particle physics.
- After Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, Leó Szilárd fled to London and patented the idea of triggering a nuclear chain reaction using neutrons to achieve the critical mass necessary for an explosion. From strictly an academic standpoint, he is considered the “father” of the atomic bomb. From then on, the race to build the first bomb was pursued by several nations culminating in the U.S. Manhattan Project. This marks the point where the technological development of nuclear weapons became distinct from academia’s purely scientific research into nuclear physics.
The people in all these endeavors had their own individual motives just as we do in our personal lives. For President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his motive was undoubtedly to defeat the Axis powers before they could develop an atomic bomb and defeat the Allies. For Szilárd, a Hungarian Jew worried about anti-Semitic Nazism, his patent was motivated by secrecy (see: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by American journalist and historian Richard Rhodes). For the industrialists who were involved in the production of nuclear weapons, their motives typically included the desire to make money. For all the numerous scientists and researchers, their motives assuredly varied from person to person. Some sought fame and fortune. Some sought the satisfaction of professional achievement. Some were simply performing their jobs. Many were primarily motivated by the thirst for knowledge or by the love of science.
I recall my wondrous college days. I wanted so badly to become an astronomer, but job prospects in that profession appeared minuscule. So, I looked for another major to get my degree in. I found one immediately after enrolling in my first computer programming class. I was really good at it, and I really enjoyed it; and, that was the successful direction I took.
Science and technology are two different things. The former is the search for knowledge using empirical means. It is deeply rooted in human curiosity, our passion to understand the world around us and our place in it. The latter utilizes that knowledge to construct specific tools. Neither are inherently good nor bad. They only reflect our basic humanity. When the first human conceived of cracking open a hard nut with a stone, the technology of hammers was born. Very soon afterwards, someone realized that hammers also made effective weapons. How we use our tools depends on our motives. How we shape our motives depends on our wisdom and on our morality.