[VIEWPOINT]Technology is a driver of scienceTwo important elements of scientific progress are the human brain and tools. It is interesting to see how these two elements merge with breathtaking results.
If science is defined as discovering truths about nature, then observation is crucial. Science has developed hand-in-hand with the development of observational tools. Early Nobel prizes in science were largely awarded to experimental scientists.
Galileo Galilei can be called the father of experimental science. When he was young, he discovered the principle governing the pendulum during a religious service at the Pisa Cathedral by measuring the time it took a hanging lamp to complete one oscillation, using his pulse as a timekeeper.
When a lens grinder in the Netherlands looked through two convex lenses placed at a certain distance, the bell tower of a church in the distance seemed three times larger than it was with the naked eye. Hearing the news of that observation, Galileo eventually increased the magnifying power of the device and named it a telescope. Galileo turned his telescope to the heavens, although the instrument attracted more initial interest for its military applications.
From the early days of the human race, men have observed celestial bodies with their naked eyes; the use of a new device for observation brought a revolution in human understanding. Through a telescope, Venus can be seen waxing and waning like the moon, demonstrating that Venus revolves around the sun.
The satellites of Jupiter were also discovered, dealing a death blow to the notions of Aristotle and Ptolemy that all celestial bodies move around the earth. Copernicus’s heliocentric theory was proved by Galileo. The rest is history until 1992, when Pope John Paul II apologized officially for the church’s condemnation of Galileo.
Meanwhile, the invention of a microscope expanded human vision to the world too tiny to be seen as well as to the universe. The cell, the smallest unit of an organism, was discovered, and so was the bacterium. DNA, the hereditary substance, was found to be in the cell nucleus. Now even each atom can be observed. All these are thanks to the improvement in human tools.
Rene Descartes, a Frenchman, is famous for his assertion, “I think; therefore I am.” He chose the army as a stable life in the turbulent times of Europe and made it a rule, in his lifetime, never to get up until noon and to lie in bed thinking during the morning hours. It is a plausible story that he conceived the X-Y coordinate system while lying on the bed and looking up at flies moving around on the ceiling.
Albert Einstein, probably the greatest scientist in history, completely changed the human concept of time and space, the basis for nature, through his thinking. Interestingly, the cosmological constant, which he adopted in order to explain the expanding universe and then discarded, is being revived by the findings from new observations made with new tools.
Although a genius like Einstein appears only once in a while, it is no exaggeration to say that from the perspective of the entire history of science, the advent of a new instrument marks a turning point in science and a spur to new theories. Both the detection of the neutrino and mass spectrometric analysis of proteins, which won Nobel prizes in physics and in chemistry last year, eloquently demonstrate the importance of devices in the advancement of science.
While there is no end to the secrets of nature, there are limitations on the capabilities of the human brain. Consequently, the age of “small science” represented by Einstein is gone, and we live in an age of “big science” represented by space explorations and human genome projects. It is no exaggeration to say that the competition in science and technology is based on tools.
* The writer is a professor of chemistry at Seoul National University.
by Kim Hie-joon