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Scientists do not work in isolation

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The phrase 'science and technology' always appears with the words in that order. Implicit in the ordering is an assumption that there is a sort of unidirectional flow: science first produces the knowledge and then this is applied in the form of technology. It's akin to the 'central dogma' of molecular biology: that DNA makes RNA makes protein. Information travels along a one-way street.

The phrase 'science and technology' always appears with the words in that order. Implicit in the ordering is an assumption that there is a sort of unidirectional flow: science first produces the knowledge and then this is applied in the form of technology. It's akin to the 'central dogma' of molecular biology: that DNA makes RNA makes protein. Information travels along a one-way street.

 

And yet, while the central dogma of biology appears to be holding up, the assumption about the relation between science and technology, although almost universal, is wrong.

 

Science has always drawn upon technology. Newton could not have produced thermodynamics, not because of any intellectual lack but simply because the technology of the steam engine had not then been invented. As a physics undergraduate, I was taught the definition of 'work' a force moved through a distance as if it were an uncomplicated concept. In fact, work and power were introduced only during the 19th century, in response to technological developments in waterwheels and mine-pumping engines.

 

Wider social issues also condition science. The development of the mathematical theory of statistics in Britain was affected, at the most technical, mathematical level, by the commitment of statisticians such as Karl Pearson to eugenics.

 

At one level of course, it is almost trivially obvious that the development of scientific computing is affected by technology. I started programming using punched cards on the UKs particle physics network, then the biggest in the country, that supported at most 25 simultaneous users. Now, it sounds like the scientific stone age.

 

But the interest of Ray Girvans article on computer gaming is that some of the influences on scientific computing and some of the sources of its future development are less obvious. The widespread availability of graphics boards driven not least by consumer demand for computer games that provide ever closer simulations of reality will provide a beneficial feed-back into scientific visualisation. It is even possible that the technology of the Grid could benefit from demands by the games-playing community for millions of users to play high-bandwidth games online, simultaneously.

The Creature Labs computergenerated character shown on this issue's front cover, called a Norn, illustrates how the information flow between science and technology may be two-way. In choosing this name, the company may be been more prescient than it realised. For in teutonic mythology, the Norns foretell the future. Odd to think that a virtual creature with a ten-lobed brain and an 800-gene genetic code may have a role in the future of scientific computing.

Dr Tom Wilkie
Dr Tom Wilkie