Science v. tech, à la Cixin Liu

A fascinating observation by Cixin Liu in an interview in Public Books, to John Plotz and translated by Pu Wang (numbers added):

… technology precedes science. (1) Way before the rise of modern science, there were so many technologies, so many technological innovations. But today technology is deeply embedded in the development of science. Basically, in our contemporary world, science sets a glass ceiling for technology. The degree of technological development is predetermined by the advances of science. (2) … What is remarkably interesting is how technology becomes so interconnected with science. In the ancient Greek world, science develops out of logic and reason. There is no reliance on technology. The big game changer is Galileo’s method of doing experiments in order to prove a theory and then putting theory back into experimentation. After Galileo, science had to rely on technology. … Today, the frontiers of physics are totally conditioned on the developments of technology. This is unprecedented. (3)

Perhaps an archaeology or palaeontology enthusiast might have regular chances to see the word ‘technology’ used to refer to Stone Age tools, Bronze Age pots and pans, etc. but I have almost always encountered these objects only as ‘relics’ or such in the popular literature. It’s easy to forget (1) because we have become so accustomed to thinking of technology as pieces of machines with complex electrical, electronic, hydraulic, motive, etc. components. I’m unsure of the extent to which this is an expression of my own ignorance but I’m convinced that our contemporary view of and use of technology, together with the fetishisation of science and engineering education over the humanities and social sciences, also plays a hand in maintaining this ignorance.

The expression of (2) is also quite uncommon, especially in India, where the government’s overbearing preference for applied research has undermined blue-sky studies in favour of already-translated technologies with obvious commercial and developmental advantages. So when I think of ‘science and technology’ as a body of knowledge about various features of the natural universe, I immediately think of science as the long-ranging, exploratory exercise that lays the railway tracks into the future that the train of technology can later ride. Ergo, less glass ceiling and predetermination, and more springboard and liberation. Cixin’s next words offer the requisite elucidatory context: advances in particle physics are currently limited by the size of the particle collider we can build.

(3) However, he may not be able to justify his view beyond specific examples simply because, to draw from the words of a theoretical physicist from many years ago – that they “require only a pen and paper to work” – it is possible to predict the world for a much lower cost than one would incur to build and study the future.

Plotz subsequently, but thankfully briefly, loses the plot when he asks Cixin whether he thinks mathematics belongs in science, and to which Cixin provides a circuitous non-answer that somehow misses the obvious: science’s historical preeminence began when natural philosophers began to encode their observations in a build-as-you-go, yet largely self-consistent, mathematical language (my favourite instance is the invention of non-Euclidean geometry that enabled the theories of relativity). So instead of belonging within one of the two, mathematics is – among other things – better viewed as a bridge.