“Science and technology” – then & now

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Tyler points to a new story in The New York Times highlighting discoveries about the Antikythera mechanism:

The new findings, reported Wednesday in the journal Nature, also suggested that the mechanism’s concept originated in the colonies of Corinth, possibly Syracuse, in Sicily. The scientists said this implied a likely connection with the great Archimedes.

“We believe that this mechanism cannot have been the first such device since it is so sophisticated and complex,” Dr. Freeth said. “And we don’t understand why this extraordinary technology apparently disappeared for several hundred years, later to emerge in the great astronomical clocks of the 14th century onwards.”

My explanation: the ancients had scientists and technologists, but they did not have Science and Technology. In other words, science and technology as we understand it today in the age of scientific industry is a cultural complex which has attained critical mass and is self-perpetuating. One does not need to manifest the brilliance of Isaac Newton to stand upon his shoulders, the sociocultural framework takes Newtonianism as a given. There were scientists in ancient Greece, in the Islamic world, China, India, etc., of various sorts. But these people lacked a cultural framework in terms of a critical mass of numbers which arose in the West sometime between 1600 and 1900 as a cumulative process.*

This is not to say that the “knowledge based” economy is a function of the modern West, it is not. The ancient Greeks had lawyers, doctors and philosophers. So did many other civilizations at various points in history. Legal frameworks, as an example, are essential for complex society, but it also seems to be that they arise necessarily from mass societies of a particular threshold of complexity. The mass societies of the post-Neolithic world straining against the bounds of the Malthusian trap were not barbaric; but they were not mass consumer societies. While I do not believe that science & technology as I am conceiving of them in this post were necessary or sufficient to drive the productivity gains which are required for existence outside of the Malthusian trap,** I suspect that they will be necessary to perpetuate said society into the indefinite future. Science & technology are not hallmarks of civilization, but they necessities of continued affluence.

* That cultural complex’s emergence might be contingent upon a host of parameters. For example, the printing press, the unity imposed by Latin as a common language for western European intellectuals, the lack of a unified ideology to suppress diversity of thought (remember that the Reformation broke the Church’s power to stifle new currents in Protestant Europe, while Protestant high priests likewise had no power in Catholic Europe), etc.

** This is not to say that I don’t think technology was not necessary or essential for the massive productivity gains, but the scientific-industrial-complex which we know and love (I hope!) today didn’t coalesce into its full form until the past century or so, though I do believe its origins can be traced back to the 17th century.



  1. We only see the ancient world as thru a glass, darkly, in any case. To say that something or other apparently disappeared for a couple of hundred years… well yes, but how much do we see at this remove? So little. Without printing presses or the like to litter every household with cheap texts describing the marvels of the age, we can’t expect much evidence to survive. 
    On a related note, I wonder how necessary it is for a people to value fame or personal renown in order for scientific progress to take place. If someone makes a discovery, they may be able to exploit it for monetary gain (as a trade secret or the like) without sharing it with others – in fact in many cases it will help them if they keep it secret. But if someone values fame, and if their culture attaches value to such discoveries, then perhaps the motivation to publish or otherwise trumpet their find from the rooftops may win out, to everyone’s benefit. If little status were attached to discovery, I think the motivation to spread knowledge far and wide would be lacking, and new knowledge would be kept secret and generally (in the end) lost.

  2. I wonder how necessary it is for a people to value fame or personal renown in order for scientific progress to take place.  
    many of the early modern scientists were gentlemen, as were many of the intellectuals of other periods and cultures. much of this is obviously due to marginal time, who had it, etc. but it seems to me if you want monetary returns on investment of time you go into finance. but 100 years from now who will be remembered, the greatest physicist of the age, or the greatest hedge fund manager? 
    i think that sci & tech have a lot of spillover effects (positive externalities). eli whitney never got as rich as his utility would have warranted.

  3. Many great scientist obviously cared tremendously about establishing their “priority” which is basically a proxy for fame and recognition, not monetary rewards. Think Newton and Darwin (in relation to Leibnitz and Wallace). The Nobel Prize is based on this psychology.

  4. That’s one source of lower East Asian innovation: lower levels of narcissism, and higher levels of ostracism of existing narcissists.

  5. (e.g., East Asians score lower than White Americans on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.)

  6. Somewhat related: Hanson joins cult.

  7. “thru a glass, darkly” 
    Bbartlog, is that a PKD reference I spy? If so, well done. 
    To me, this whole thing reads like good sci-fi. It’s fascinating. I want to know more.

  8. ‘Through a glass, darkly,’ is by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. 
    So if Bbart was referencing the mechanisms origins in Corinth, that was well done.

  9. “thru a glass, darkly” 
    Bbartlog, is that a PKD reference I spy?
    I suppose if I said ‘to everything, there is a season’ some people would think I was cribbing from The Byrds. 
    Like Creepy Dude says, the quote is from the Bible. PKD stole it.