The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, by W. Brian Arthur. Rethinking What Leads the Way: Science, or New Technology?

(Quotes are in font with serifs.)

According to the NY Times, in Dr. Arthur's view, the relationship between science and technology is more symbiotic than is generally conceded. Science and technology move forward together in a kind of co-evolution. And science does not lead. . In Dr. Arthur's view, the "lone inventor" is in fact an invention, part of American economic mythology.

Comment from a reader (signed Walter): It’s amazing how ignorant this author is. … The author cites two examples where there was no evolution of previous art or technology: Jet engine and Computer. … I actually talked to Willy Messerschmitt who designed the first Jet, the Me 262, and asked him: What made you go for the jet? His answer: A propeller plane can only fly so fast, no matter how hard and fast you turn the propeller. The Jet has a thrust, which is independent of the speed. Willy Messerschmitt just applied physics to get more speed. …. The computer: Alan Turing built tube computers during WW II to help decode German messages. I saw the reconstructed model at Bletchley Park. … This author did not do much basic thinking, it seems to me.

But also comment from another reader (signed CJ): Thermodynamics owes more to the steam engine, than the steam engine owes to thermodynamics...

The best example where pure science has led is radio communications. You cannot detect radio waves unless you have a receiver. But why build a receiver? Because pure science predicted their existence (James Clerk Maxwell circa 1864).

The mathematician Alan Turing laid the theoretical foundations of computing in the 1930’s and then put those ideas in practice by building the code breaker during WW-II.

Occasionally technology does motivate science but that technology had its roots in earlier science. Notable examples are the steam engine and thermodynamics, airplanes and aerodynamics, electronic signal processing and the mathematical theory of distributions.

And yes, the “lone inventor” is real. I am personally familiar with the history of some advances in computing that I witnessed when I was at Bell Labs. One advance was the development of the Unix operating system by Ken Thompson and the other the development of the C++ programming language by Bjarne Stroustrup. In both cases the individuals not only acted alone but they did so in the face of skepticism from their colleagues.

Theo Pavlidis
October 21, 2009