Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Science - a killer app?

Galileo's sketches of the Moon - was science one of the reasons for the rise of the West?  (Thanks to Wikipedia)
A lot of people have watched and enjoyed Niall Ferguson's series on Civilization.  A lot of people have been infuriated by it as well.  One thing that has divided people is his use of the phrase 'killer app'. 

Personally I found that a useful and evocative shorthand for what was going on.   But I can see why it strikes some people as a bit contrived.  I think this one is a matter of taste.  In the long run the critics will win on this one.  What strikes you as a neat turn of phrase the first time you hear it inevitably wears with repetition.  History is likely to judge against Niall on this one.

There is also a point for pedents.  Strictly speaking  a 'killer app' is an application so attractive that it justifies the purchase of the platform on which it runs regardless of what else it can do.  The canonical example is Lotus 1-2-3, the first spreadsheet, which was so useful for business that many bought PCs purely to be able to use it.  But we will ignore that.  It sounds like it means what Niall Ferguson seems to think it means, i.e., an application so deadly that it enables you to beat the competition with it.

But what about the more important point.  Has he correctly identified the six killer apps, or if you prefer,  the six factors that led to the predominance of the West.

I am not at all sure that science should be in the list.  There is no doubt in my mind that if you have any serious sized project it is very likely that the techniques of science will enable you to achieve your objective more quickly and efficiently.  But it is equally true that you can usually get what you want without using science at all.  If you have enough money and manpower few objectives are impossible.   Knowledge is useful, scientific or otherwise, and the more you have the more power you can exert.  But there isn't anything about scientific knowledge that offers a unique advantage.

A good example is sea power.  European nations took to the science of astronomy enthusiastically to enhance the range and capabilities of their navies.  This was a good use of their resources and the investment paid back handsomely.  But it was applied to already existing ocean going technology that had been developed by trial and error and rule of thumb.  Science helped, and helped a lot, but it didn't get the process going in the first place and didn't motivate the creation of sea power in the first place. The Portuguese would have set out in search of spices whatever.  They chose to use the best tools available, but would have gone anyway.

To put it another way, had someone in India or China come up with the theory of gravity just before Newton, would it have made any difference to the course of history?  It is hard to see how it would have done.

Science is a useful tool, but it is also a valuable end in itself.   As the West got richer it was able to devote more resources to doing things that are fun.  Science was a part of this just as much as opera or novels.   People like and enjoy science for its own sake.  My feeling is that a lot of early science was done by men of leisure who were doing it for no better reason than they enjoyed it.  So to my mind, science is a consequence far more than a cause of Western dominance of the world.




My original review of the science episode of Niall Ferguson's Civilization: Is the West History?

3 comments:

Calvus said...

Historians seem recently to have adopted the unfortunate habit of saying "science" when they mean "engineering".

Lorraine said...

The original killer-app was a spreadsheet, but it was VisiCalc, not Lotus.

Historyscientist said...

Thanks for the link Lorraine. That looks like an interesting blog. VisiCalc was indeed the first spreadsheet I used and it was wonderful.