[OUTLOOK]Technology Is Not a Faucet You Turn OnGunpowder, paper, the compass and the printing press － some of the most important inventions in history － all came from China. Until the Middle Ages, the civilizations of northern European countries such as Germany and Britain were practically barbarian in comparison to China and the Islamic countries. Their revolutionary technologies, however, were largely based on trial and error.
Entering the Modern Age, Europe suddenly took the technological lead. While the empirical methodology of the East had reached its limit, the West developed the scientific method based on rationality. Understanding the principles behind phenomena opened the technology gap be-tween East and West.
Thanks to Newtonian mechanics, Europe came to have the technology to calculate a trajectory exactly. Europeans established superiority over the East because, when they fired a gun, they knew exactly where the bullet was going to land.
In making gunpowder, there is a huge difference between understanding the underlying principles of chemistry and going by experience. Europe developed chemistry to the level of modern science, but the chemistry of the East remained at the level of alchemy. The failure to develop their major inventions to the level of science eventually made China and the East bow to Western civilization.
Human beings were able to open the door to the Bronze Age, the Iron Age and basic civilization thanks to the wisdom of turning experience into technology － such as making gunpowder. They were able to make beer and wine without knowing the chemistry of fermentation. The inventions of the past did not depend upon a precise understanding of root principles.
Today, however, it is almost impossible to invent any new technologies without understanding the principles that explain them. In many cases, it is hard to distinguish technology from science.
"Pure" scientific discoveries such as Maxwell's equation, Chadwick's neutron, nuclear energy, quantum mechanics, semiconductors, the laser and so on, have also led to many unexpected technological developments that have improved our quality of life.
A good example is Watson and Crick's discovery of the helical structure of DNA in 1953. With this, traditional biology leaped to the level of molecular biology － the starting point of biotechnology, which is likely to contribute greatly to humanity.
The "basic" or research sciences such as physics and biology not only provide a foundation for the applied sciences but define the culture of an age. Copernicus revolutionized the world's outlook. Carl Sagan's probes into extraterrestrial life stimulated the imaginations of countless numbers of people. "Who we are?" "Where do we come from?" Studying the universe through the Hubble telescope allowed us to begin finding scientific answers to these age-old questions for the first time.
Thus, in order to further improve our standards of living, we need the help of humanities and social sciences as well as pure sciences. The professors of colleges of humanities, social science and natural science at Seoul National University a few days ago emphasized the importance of these fundamental disciplines. It is right for a state-run university to pursue research in areas that private firms are less equipped to study, such as applied science or engineering.
But it is much more important for these universities to educate in fundamental disciplines and studies, which might not yield instant profits but may be the source of technology of the future.It is in these studies that Korea has long depended on advanced countries. They are only just now beginning to take root.
We need to supply the water and fertilizer to allow basic sciences the means to bear fruit as soon as possible. However, we must approach these fields with patience and dedication. Only these will allow the long-term possibilities to be realized.
The writer is a professor of chemistry at Seoul National University.
by Kim Hie-joon