Sammy Science back in the house. A lot of people have been asking us scientists what to do about the massive oil leak fouling the Gulf of Mexico, a huge ecological disaster. Unfortunately, scientists are not really experts on this sort of thing, it’s more of a technology problem, or rather, a massive failure of technology. What’s the difference between science and technology, you wonder?
Well, science is what led humans to discover all the endless uses of petroleum, from gasoline to tar to plastics, while technology is the means to apply these scientific discoveries, more engineering than pure science. Scientists can describe the laws of physics and aeronautics, but building an aircraft is the technician’s achievement.
While a scientist may have discovered that uranium atoms can be split to unleash incredible amounts of energy, they have no control over how that information is applied. Science tells us what is possible, technology makes these possibilities a reality. The line between the two can be very fine, but generally the pure scientist, since he is trying to know the unknown, does not concern himself with practical application, but hard facts and truth.
Once his or her theory or discovery is found to be true, it becomes technology. For the most part scientists build no bridges or aircraft, do no actual farming or create any medicines, but their ideas and laboratory work are the basis for the technicians who have revolutionized these disparate fields.
Not all inventors have been scientists, or at least not formally trained as such, so the line gets even more blurry. And most scientists in reality “discover” nothing, they merely interpret what they see, they “uncover” things. Isaac Newton certainly didn’t discover gravity, only explained its laws. No one invented the atom or DNA, only ways to peek inside them.
Then there are the great synthesists, first-rate minds who incorporate the work of many scientists and inventors, further blurring the lines. For example, Henry Ford did not invent internal combustion engines, automobiles, rubber tires or mass production, but nevertheless changed the world by incorporating all these ideas in a practical application of disparate technologies on a grand scale.
The modern counterparts to Ford Motors would be Bill Gates of Microsoft and Steve Jobs of Apple, leaders in another world-changing wave of technology that flowed from various scientific discoveries. Both men were trained as engineers, not scientists. What both disciplines have in common, as always, is that they are merely working with the materials at hand, those substances provided by nature.
Unlike artists, we cannot make stuff up to improve the narrative or enhance the drama. Songs and movies don’t have to make sense to be great. Science must be exact. No dream sequences allowed. Let’s check the in-box:
Dear Sammy Science: What’s up with this Gulf oil leak? Who’s fault is it? – Kerwood Derby
Dear Kerwood Derby: It is British Petroleum’s fault, of course, but they wouldn’t be out there in the middle of the sea performing the very dangerous task of sucking oil from a mile underwater if we did not pay them a fortune to so so. What kind of car do you drive? How well is your house insulated? In a sense, it’s all of our faults. While the Gulf Spill looks like a classic case of failed technology and criminal negligence, this might be a good time to look at the ridiculous lengths we go to to obtain petroleum. This disaster proves we are willing to risk destroying large segments of our own habitat to obtain oil. The Gulf Stream Current circles the world and is a major factor in regulating global climate, as if our climate needed another challenge. Never mind the mammoth loss of marine life, the homes, farms and businesses destroyed or how scientifically unsound that is, it’s just plain nuts! It is time for an all-out effort to find petroleum’s replacement. It’s either fund that effort, or fund a dozen more Gulf spills and kill another piece of our planet.
Dear Sammy Science: You claim to be a scientist, all detached and neutral, interested in only the facts. Okay, so where do you stand on the superiority of the Caucasian Race to all the other human races? I’ve included several scholarly dissertations to back up my claim. – Angelo Saxon
Dear Angelo Saxon: Angelo, those “scientific papers” got to me just in time and were a real life saver! I had just run out of toiled paper. Here’s my unbiased scientific opinion on all this: You’re an asshole.
Dear Sammy Science: I know you are are an astrophysicist and so you must be interested in space travel. What do you think of all the private companies obtaining their own space craft? Should the government allow this? – Marcia from Boca
Dear Marcia from Boca: Why should the government have anything to say about it as long as they obey the law and pay their taxes? Spacecraft are the first major advance in transportation that was not created by and for private companies and individuals. Ships, trains, cars and airplanes were civilian commercial products before they were military craft. Government-owned spacecraft were designed and built by private corporations, and advances in technology have made private ownership of space craft a real possibility. Much like the internet, private space craft is an industry and a technology in its infancy, going in directions no one can predict, certain to benefit from scientific principles yet to be uncovered. Why stifle such an exciting thing?