Today there is a certain difficulty in distinguishing what is science and what technology is. A very widespread idea is that science is interested in the general laws of nature, studying it through disciplines such as biology, chemistry, physics. This opinion favors the undoubtedly very important aspect of scientific speculation, often seen as a research without immediate aims and completely free, but relegates technology to a primarily ‘practical’ role of application of the general laws discovered by science. It is a rather simplistic opinion and can lead to the bad conclusion, also quite widespread, that technology ‘is useful’, is useful, while science is useless and difficult.
History teaches instead that things are more complex and that science and technology are closely linked. In the past, much more than now, the scientist was also a refined technologist, as he often had to build his own tools. Furthermore, many inventions, such as the steam engine, even preceded by a long time the corresponding physical theory, in this case thermodynamics, which explained its functioning.
Other fundamental inventions, today we would say technological applications, were instead discovered ‘by chance’ in the course of scientific research carried out for a completely different purpose, such as the light bulb, whose operating principle was discovered during the first measurements on the consequences of the passage of current. electric in various materials. In other words, one would never have arrived at the light bulb, simply by developing and perfecting existing lighting technologies, such as the candle.
Another example, similar but much more recent, could be the web, developed in the nineties of the last century by scientists who dealt with nuclear physics, simply to exchange documents. In a few months the web spread all over the world.
Technological progress does not always derive from ‘pure’ science, on the contrary it often happens the opposite. Technology, today as in the past, creates new tools that offer further possibilities, sometimes incredibly powerful, to basic research. To stay in the past let us think of the invention of the telescope, which gave Galileo Galilei the possibility of starting the modern study of the Universe. Or, to go back to our times, let’s think of one of the greatest advances in the biological sciences, the mapping of human DNA, possible only thanks to the availability of highly advanced electronic instruments, computers and software.
Inventions reread over time
Some inventions, such as fire manipulation, have been reused several times in human history to give birth to new advances. Fire is the first technology used in the energy field. With the fire the first men warmed up and managed to survive in hostile environments due to the climatic conditions, but they also began to cook their own food, thus learning to keep it longer. The fire manipulation technique was then revisited several times in history, and is a good example of the continuous improvement that took place by applying, from time to time, different technologies.
Thus, the availability of an easily reproducible and constant source of energy led, in the Bronze and Iron Ages, to the development of increasingly efficient furnaces for melting metals and their alloys. Without fire, therefore, we would never have had metal tools, which are themselves fundamental for other inventions and applications. To date, the fire is used to cook food and to produce heat with which to heat up, using tools to which the best and most current electronic control technologies are applied: gas stoves that optimize cooking time through heat control. developed, or boilers calibrated to produce maximum heat with minimum use of gas.
We also think of another of the most ancient inventions, the wheel. Archaeologists say that the invention of the wheel probably dates back to the 5th millennium BC. Certainly this invention brought about a radical change in the everyday life of those societies: from transport to the development of new tools such as lathes. The simple chariot pulled by animals, still used today in the poorest countries, relieved humanity of one of the heaviest and most difficult tasks to perform, namely the transport of heavy goods. The wheel was then used to harness the energy of the wind and water with the mills, and is still used today in turbines for the production of electricity.