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Light such a Candle: Chapters in the History of Science and Technology Hardcover – Nov 1 1997


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`The format of the book is attractive, and its argument provides a fairly accessible ... introductory exposition of topics in the history of science. But given the fairly technical level of the text, it is likely to appeal to scientists rather than to the nonscientists whose confusion about the relationship between science and technology the author has sought to clarify.' Nature

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Suppose we ask a well-informed non-scientist to name the most important scientific advances of the last couple of centuries. Read the first page
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
The difference between science and technology Oct. 1 2012
By John Duncan - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Written a few years after Keith Laidler's excellent The World of Physical Chemistry this book covers some of the same ground, with a significant amount of overlap in content, especially in the early chapters on thermodynamics. However, the emphasis and scope are different. Here he discusses not just physical chemistry but science as a whole, including plenty of physics and a small amount of biology. In addition, the target audience is different: Laidler is concerned that journalists, politicians and the general public nearly always confuse science with technology, so that most of what is reported as "science" is actually technology. As he explains, what scientists regard as major scientific advances, ranging from relativity and quantum mechanisms to the theory of natural selection, are advances in understanding, whereas popular ideas of scientific advances, such as computers, television and jet airliners, are applications of existing understanding. He points out, for example, that although Aristotle would never have seen a zip fastener he would have had no difficulty for understanding how it worked.

Why is this important? It is important because people who define science policy and science spending for governments ought to know what science is. However, there is abundant evidence that many elected officials have no idea what science is, most flagrantly in the case of biology but also for science as a whole. It would be nice to think that the book was reaching its target audience, but I fear that most of its likely readers will have been people who already accepted its principal message.

After the introductory chapter, Laidler discusses several examples of technological advances over the past two centuries, from steam engines to atomic power, with other chapters on photography, electric power, radio transmission, electronics, and x-ray crystallography. At the beginning the technology came first and the science was built on it: the early development of steam engines owed nothing to understanding, but it led to the science of thermodynamics. With modern technology this is reversed: it would have impossible for usable GPS navigation systems to have been developed without prior understanding of the theory of relativity. Laidler argued that that trend can only continue, and that major future advances in technology can only follow in the wake of advances in scientific understanding.

When the book was published in 1998, Laidler thought that Richard Dawkins was too hard on religious belief -- "the plain fact is that there are many intelligent people who hold religious beliefs and accept evolutionary theory". I think he was probably wrong about his "plain fact", but in any case the progressive endarkenment that has characterized the first years of the 21st century might have hardened his attitude to religious belief.


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