By Denis G. Rancourt
The Basis Mantra of Science vs. Reality
A narrative that pervades establishment science is that technological advances are grounded in and enabled by a developing fundamental scientific basis. Actually scientific theory is not needed for technological developments and the theory and its priests serve more for societal control than anything else.
For example, it is advanced by practicing scientists, educators and policy makers that our knowledge about atoms, the elements and molecules allows us to invent new chemical reactions, new materials, new electronic components and so on.
It is further advanced that the functioning of the cell and of life itself can be understood in terms of chemical bonds and reactions and that, for example, increases in fundamental knowledge about molecules leads to increases in understanding cells, organs, life systems, organisms, the human person, and society.
It is advanced that development of theory leads to medical and technological progress. For example, it is not uncommon for a physicist to claim that quantum mechanics has led to advances in electronic device technology or that Einstein’s E = mc2 equation was required for the development of the atomic bomb.
Although the atomic model of matter is a central and powerful conceptual construct that allows one to visualize and discuss phase transformations (solid, gas, liquid) and chemical reactions (e.g., synthesis, combustion) and even to calculate the behaviours of gases for example, in the present essay I question the notion that invention is dependent on or even aided by the development of theory.
I distinguish conceptual aids such as the atomic model of matter, the atomic model of heat and heat exchanges, the electromagnetic wave picture of light, the Newtonian understanding of forces and actions, and so on, from the development of highly mathematical theory related to quantum mechanics, general relativity, elementary particle physics, non-linear physics, electrodynamics, and so on.
Whereas conceptual aids partially determine the scientist’s perspective in examining nature, generally, it is not true that the theoretical endeavour helps in the enterprise of invention and discovery.
Theory and its calculations can sometimes assist in managing growth and planning the economy, such as electromagnetic calculations for emitter antenna placements, but theory does not catalyze or enable invention and significant technological discoveries.
In addition, most professional biologists, for example, function and publish without any reliable understanding of Newton’s laws of forces, as do many chemists and physicists also. So even the most fundamental conceptual constructs are not shared among scientists in different disciplines.
Each scientific group becomes fluent only in those foundational elements that are considered essential to converse in the chosen field of specialization, and only to the extent required to maintain appearances when publishing or speaking.
A False Basis
My main point is that in terms of the actual process of technological invention, science theory is virtually irrelevant.
Invention is produced by tinkering, by doing, by manipulating, by building. And the doer has his/her own logic, own intuition and own imagery, in interaction with colleagues and others. Technology is the product of modified recipes (manufacturing processes), adjustments and accidents; it is not an outflow from theory.
If you want to train a master engine designer you don’t start by teaching him/her all of known metallurgy. And in training a metallurgist, you don’t teach him/her the quantum mechanics of solids. Well you might but it would be a waste of time.
Each area of development has its practices and methods and borrows from other areas but the new ideas come from spark and often from incorrect concepts, not from theory.
At the time the high-Tc (high transition temperature) superconductors were discovered (in 1984 or so) the theoretical consensus was that the value of Tc was limited to 20 K (Kelvin) or so. But the discoverers had an insight – one that would have been difficult to convince theorists to work on or to get funding for – and they discovered. After the discovery, dozens of competing theoretical models for the new phenomenon were vehemently advanced.
Following the discovery, what mattered most in producing new high-Tc superconductors were one’s creative recipes for synthesizing novel solid materials with heavy elements, not the extent to which one was familiar with solid state theory.
When organic chemists make new molecules they rarely even talk to theoretical chemists but instead imagine the steps in the laboratory soup they are going to make. And they don’t know what they have made until they characterize it. Then they draw incorrect pictograms and talk about interpretations (based on personalized inferred molecular behaviours) in published papers.
It’s actually quite difficult to get theorists and doers (experimentalists, analysts, synthesists, field workers, etc.) to even talk to each other. When it happens and they collaborate it’s considered quite novel. And the typical collaborative reports have separate experimental and theory sections.
It is exceedingly rare for theorists to help guide experimentalists. And it can lead to disasters where experimentalists interpret their findings according to theoretical proposals rather than strictly according to empirical observations. Indeed, this scenario somewhat typifies the history of science: The sun revolves around the earth, Newtonian physics removes free will, heat flows in and out of bodies, etc.
Thermodynamics is a most powerful theoretical construct. It was largely developed by a mechanical engineer of the steam engine epoch. Whereas it provides a theoretical limit to engine efficiency and methods for calculating energy transfers and wastes, engine development was never limited by thermodynamic theoretical knowledge. Smoother piston motion was not the result of thermodynamic theory, nor was the idea of internal combustion.
Similarly, predictive understanding of failure in construction materials (including Eiffel Tower steel, nuclear fuel rods, etc.) has come from repeated tests and microscope observations, not from condensed matter physics theory which can only trail behind.
The zero-thermal-expansion alloy known as Invar (Physics Nobel Prize 1905) was discovered by exhaustive trial and error, contradicted known laws of metallurgy and metal physics, and took more than one hundred years of theoretical work to be tentatively explained. During this time, development of better, stainless, non-magnetic, and stronger Invar alloys progressed unimpeded by the incompetence of theoretical stutterings and flourished into an entire area of materials engineering.
When has theoretical “understanding” ever led to a technological advance? The high priests of technological development are all trained in the language of theory as part of a common culture of technological elitism but when has theory actually led to advancement?
Technology as Genesis of Technology
Technology advances from technology. Manufacturing processes are developed, changed by necessity of changing circumstances, and perfected. New processes have their genesis in what is available. Theory only provides language, concepts, memory aids and, in the logic of corporate fascism, needed packaging for the purpose of patenting and needed isolating of independent entrepreneurs. Theory also constrains thought and perception and thereby imprisons potential inventors.
Miniaturization of integrated circuitry advances at a staggering pace. Is it driven by advances in quantum mechanics? Hardly! In this sector corporate managers typically say: Anyway theory costs relatively little so let the publicly funded theorists theorize and they may save us a few bucks here and there and entertain our inventors (also publicly funded), as long as they don’t disrupt the real work…
In the days of Bell Labs and IBM theory and associated fundamental pursuits were used as a recruiting tool into the basic science labs of these companies for the “brightest” and most motivated minds then conveniently oriented towards more practical pursuits; back in the days when originator-based invention mattered before markets were so extensively monopolized.
Did the atomic bomb arise out of the theory leading to E=mc2? Hardly! It resulted from tedious nuclear physics experiments inducing nuclear reactions and estimating reaction cross sections. It resulted from the empirical observations of nuclear spontaneous and induced fission and from painstaking isotope separation work and experimentation. Only basic known concepts of the chain reaction and empirical measurements of reaction rates and probabilities were needed to guide prototype construction. The calculation of a critical mass is a simple geometric one that does not require relativity or nuclear physics theory. And ultimately it needs to be tested by experiment.
Indeed, the best estimates of explosive yield at the time were off by a significant factor, even given the best measured parameters that money could buy. And some theorists tentatively advanced that the chain reaction could engulf the planet.
It is rightly said that very few trained scientists (including physicists) understand general relativity or quantum mechanics. Is technological advancement constrained by the small number of thus illuminated scientists? Absolutely not.
And what are the successes of quantum mechanics? It is barely able to correctly model the simplest hydrogen atom, with the needed so-called fine and hyperfine interactions, and only approximately and using phenomenological factors. There has not been an analytic solution to the simplest chemical bond of the H2 molecule and the correct crystal structures of the pure elements cannot even be “predicted” or reproduced. Let’s not even touch on nuclear structure or nuclear spectroscopy – and elementary particle physics is at the stage of theory-aided phenomenon zoology. Yet these are the simplest systems in nature.
Statistics and Medicine
The only statistically significant advances in medicine (distinct from public health) are in trauma intervention (less young folks in urban centers die of heart attacks and more car accident victims survive) and these advances result from trial and error with short-term-effect drugs and interventions. Effective medical practice for the big killers (cancer and heart disease) evolves at a deafeningly slow pace irrespective of stellar technological advances in intrusive and non-intrusive medical imagery. Surgical advances for specific ailments follow the developmental model of all other technological advances, without reference to theory. We are no closer to understanding the human body and this has no bearing on medicine – which continues to kill as much as ever in the past .
Does theoretical molecular chemistry guide drug design? Try “drug peddling” and it is guided by mega-profits, political lobbying, and corrupt licensing agencies; in a world where main effects are called “side effects” and where the “benefits” are demonstrated in bought and paid-for tenuous statistical trials and then pushed on MDs in industry-financed “continuing education” parties. The theory serves to make nice pictures and to dress societal-scale corporate-professional pharma criminality in a costume of legitimacy.
A rare area where theory is rigorous and has a large potential for benefit to society is in the mathematical area of significance or error or sensitivity analysis. Here an ethical theorist with a sharp mind and courageous talk could cut through a lot of crap. To avoid this, we separate the statistical error analysis from any analysis of the meaning of and intrinsic error in the “measured” input data. This way, garbage in equals garbage out even when the statistical manipulations are correct, when they are correct. The result is the use of chemotherapy in palliative oncology and a mean global temperature that is rising .
Mostly though theory exists in its own sphere and serves primarily to eliticize science and technology. Theorists provide the language for the religion of technology to constrain consumers to their limited roles much like theologians provided the normative language of heaven, hell and the sacraments to constrain subjects to be subjects.
Inventors know how to invent. Scientists think they know. And all obey the corporate masters after being suitably trained in the art of bluffing .
The division between theory and technological invention as distinct endeavours is apparent in institutional behaviours and the economic legal framework: Theory is free whereas technology is protected. Theorists have open exchanges which do not threaten profits or national “security” whereas corporate technological secrecy and enforceable patent “protection” are important concerns with significant resource allocations.
Time Reverse Engineering Implications
In an extension to the above discussion we should also ask whether there even is progress, in the sense portrayed in the science narrative.
Each time period has its technology meshed with all the technologies of that period. As a result, technology is not reversible. Contrary to the view that as science advances, building on a broader and broader base, everything that was technologically possible in the recorded past continues to be possible at every present, former technologies cannot be recreated.
Past technologies used the materials and methods of their times and these materials and methods are gone. We will never be able to make steel and steel engines the way we did for the Ford Model T. The casting and machining tools and manufacturing methods are different. Steel itself is different. Reverse engineering into the past is a virtually impossible task.
Furthermore, culture changes and this includes our attitudes about risk and work. Workers and their bosses are different. Methods of the past often could not be recreated even if the tools were the same and the recipes known.
Do we make better food now than we did in the past? Could we make the food of the past? Are our inter-personal relationships better now, thanks to thousands of peer-reviewed psychology papers, than they were in the past? Can we ever know what the music of lost instruments sounded like? Is science itself better now that it is “peer reviewed” in the journal editing process? None of Albert Einstein’s scientific papers were peer reviewed; indeed he opposed peer review .
Could we walk on the moon again without expending a formidable effort, greater than the original effort? Sure flip up into the upper atmosphere for a joy ride and visit an orbiting “space” can, but walk on the moon?
If all this only depended on a fundamental scientific basis, then reverse engineering into the past would be immediate.
No. Technology is changing practice tied to culture, not a result of advancing scientific understanding. In the connected world, establishment science is at best an amusement and at worst the machinations of service intellectuals vying for position and knowingly or unknowingly contributing to the social engineering imposed by the corporate-finance regime.
See also “The Religion of Technology” by David F. Noble.
Denis G. Rancourt is a former tenured and full professor of physics at the University of Ottawa, Canada. He practiced several areas of science which were funded by a national agency and ran an internationally recognized laboratory. He has published over 100 articles in leading scientific journals and many social commentary essays. He developed popular activism courses and was an outspoken critic of the university administration and a defender of student and Palestinian rights. He was fired for his dissidence in 2009.
In relation to the present essay, Rancourt has published in areas including metallurgy, Invar physics, synthetic chemistry, materials science, nuclear spectroscopy, theoretical condensed matter physics, environmental science and geochemistry, mineralogy, statistical analysis, sensitivity analysis, soil science, measurement methods, magnetometry, diffraction physics, and pedagogy. For over 20 years he also taught courses in quantum mechanics, measurement theory and methods, spectroscopy, solid state physics, magnetism, introductory physics, and science and society.
Are physicists smart?
Are physicists smart?