Topics in Science and Technology

We are as gods and might as well get good at it
The Whole Earth Catalogue (1968)

My interest in science and technology is not limited to research. I’m also interested in the foundations of the scientific knowledge and the relations between science, technology and society. In the last two centuries science and technology have provided humanity with advances that could be only dreamed in the past. The consequences of these advances and its impact on society and the environment should be studied. A brief description follows:

Philosophy of Science and Technology

My interest in the philosophy of science can be summarized in two questions

– Why are the results of scientific research so useful?
– What does science tell us about the world around us?

I don’t have the answer to these questions and right now it’s my belief that there is no answer cogent enough to convince everyone. My personal conviction is that the main feature of scientific knowledge, at least of experimental and operational knowledge, is that it can be used in industrial processes in a consistent way.

This argument places me in the realm of the Philosophy of Science in Practice. If you are interested in this subject you should check the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice website.

Science, Technology and Society

As stated before, science and technology have provided humanity with advances that have changed the landscape of what is possible and feasible. In the last decades, a more critical awareness of the consequences of science and technology has arisen. This has propelled the study of their role in society. Although this is a wide field of study my main interest lies in the problem of the two cultures as stated by C. P. Snow (1956):

“the intellectual life of the whole of western society” is split into the titular two cultures — namely the sciences and the humanities — and that this is a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems.

Due to my academic wanderings I’ve been nurtured on both sides of the divide and (believe) to have a broad view of the problem. I don’t pretend to have a solution but the difference can be summarized using a quote from Feynman.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

It’s my opinion that this divide is evolving into a cleavage between science and society. This could imperil our future progress, specially in fields like environmental policy. This drift can already be observed in the mass media:

Big Brain Theory: Have Cosmologists Lost Theirs? New York Times (2008)
Generation Jobless: Students Pick Easier Majors Despite Less Pay. Wall Street Journal (2011)
The environment: Defending science. The Economist (2002).
La razón estrangulada. Carlos Elías (2008). A good description of the situation of science in mass media. It’s in Spanish and it should be read with caution: the author’s views are quite controversial.

It’s also very interesting to realize that although there is a lot of interest in science, there are very few amateur scientific organizations, the only important ones that I know are related to amateur astronomy.

Complementary science

Complementary science is a term coined by Hasok Chang in Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress.  Chang describes complementary science as

A discipline that contributes to scientific knowledge through historical and philosophical investigations. Complementary science asks scientific questions that are excluded from current specialist science.

Although I don’t agree completely with Chang I do believe that complementary science provides a good framework to reformulate scientific knowledge and to make it accessible to non-specialists.

I think that the knowledge obtained by complementary science would be of value in science and engineering education and in the dissemination of scientific results to the public. You can read more about it here.

Being a teacher, and a scholar, I’ve done some small inroads in the field of reformulating scientific knowledge to make it more accessible to my students. The themes that have interested my students more are:

Negative absolute temperatures and their measurement scales. Believe it or not there are negative absolute temperatures. Even more incredibly, these temperatures are hotter than infinite temperature. The scale goes like:

+0 ºK ..... +∞ ºK -∞ ºK ..... -0 ºK

What's going on here? It's just a problem with the measurement scale. When it was defined only systems with positive absolute temperatures were known and the scale was designed accordingly. When systems with negative absolute temperatures were found in the 50's it was too late to change the scale. You can find more info in Negative, Infinite and Hotter than Infinite temperatures from Philip Ehrlich (1982) and Thermodynamics and statistical mechanics at negative absolute temperatures by Ramsey (1956).
Quantum Mysteries: Quantum mechanics is one of the most successful and baffling theories provided by science. Since its inception it has maverled and puzzled scientist, philosophers and laymen brave enough to dip into its waters. One of my enjoyable hobbies is searching, and thinking, ways of making "quantum paradoxes" accessible to my students. I focus on experiments, gedanken or actual, that show some non-intuitive properties of quantum systems. My favourite papers on the subject are Quantum Mysteries Revisited and Quantum Mysteries Refined by David Mermin (1990 and 1994) and Quantum mechanics, local realistic theories, and Lorentz-invariant realistic theories by Lucien Hardy (1992).
The meaning of c: It's been over a century since Einstein proposed his special theory of relativity and, nowadays, the fact that nothing can go faster than light has its place in popular culture. Even with this widespread knowledge, the consequences of this fact tend to be counterintuitive and tell us a lot about our conceptions of space and time.