Tuesday, September 11, 2012

ELI THE ICE MAN: Science and Technology

In this Presidential election year, the major party candidates drop hints about creating jobs by fostering technology and innovation.  Sociologist Anthony Giddens defines and delimits their thinking when he cites “innovation centers” near universities such as Cambridge.  Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even mentioned Austin as a magnet for people from around the world with advanced university degrees.  But it is at once more complicated and simpler than that.  Basically, the nature of innovation defies planning, a harsh reality for all the planners running for political office.

Electrical technicians know the mnemonic ELI the ICE man.  In an inductive (L) circuit the measured voltage (E) sine wave precedes the measured current (I): E Leads I.  In a Capacitive circuit, the sine wave of current (I) precedes the measured sine wave of voltage (E): ICE.  Thus, Eli the Iceman.  So, too, with technology and science, does one or the other lead to simplify the analysis.  In fact – in reality for both non-trivial circuits, as for economic systems – isolating one or the other is a convenience of analysis.  No formula exists for creating innovation centers or every town with a college or university could boast of having one. 

It is a principle of Austrian economic theory that entrepreneurship is ineffable.  Yes, it helps to know accounting, and marketing, and organizational development, and to have motivation, being willing to work hard for 18 hours a day, and to know how and when to delegate responsibility, and all that and more.  Ultimately, the pieces do not add up.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Case studies show people who fail despite having all of these, and others who succeed despite lacking one or more of them.

“Laissez nous faire!”  According to historical legend, the phrase stems from a meeting in about 1680 between the powerful French finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert and a group of French businessmen led by a certain M. Le Gendre. When the eager mercantilist minister asked how the French state could be of service to the merchants, and help to promote their commerce, Le Gendre replied simply "Laissez-nous faire."  Wikipedia here. 

If you examine the broad history of science and technology from the steam engine and thermodynamics through electricity and its opening up the physics of quantum mechanics, to the atomic age, the space age, the post-industrial revolution of the information age, and the immediate promise of 3-D printing and nanotechnology, it is obvious that government programs to “create” high-technology centers can only (at best) replicate the successes of the previous generation.  Note that according to Moore’s Law a “generation” in technology is 18 months, not 30 years. 


Sometimes, so-called “pure science” does lead to new inventions. The theories do not grow out on their own, but only explain known facts.  From the medieval siege weapons and clock towers that were explained with the theory of “impetus” through Galileo, to Newton, Watt, Henry, Marconi, Einstein, and to our own time each invention made possible a better understanding which was expressed as a theory.  But the “theory” that was accepted was only a replacement for a paradigm.  Each paradigm at first suggested new inventions and then was discarded when further discoveries could not be explained in those terms.

Previously on "Necessary Facts"
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Great Scientific Experiments
Browne on Kuhn
Is Physics a Science?

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