Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Science didn't cause the revolution (at least not directly)

One final point on the book before concluding with a discussion of innovation. Was the industrial revolution simply a matter of science and technology? It seems such an obvious possibility.

But in fact it does not work out in chronological terms, according to McCloskey. It was more a matter of tinkering than eureka.

Another problem is that the inspiriting discoveries of a Newtonian clockwork universe, and the great mathematization in Europe of earthly and celestial mechanics in the eighteenth century, had practically no direct industrial applications until the late nineteenth century at the very earliest. The historian of technology Nathan Rosenberg noted that "before the twentieth century there was no very close correspondence between scientific leadership and industrial leadership," instancing the United States, which had negligible scientific achievement by 1890 and yet industrial might, and Japan, ditto, by 1970.

China had been ahead of Europe technologically for a thousand years before the Renaissance, but that did not produce an industrial revolution. Nor did the scientific and mathematical advances of the ancient Greeks. It was the rainy provincial parts of England where it happened, not dazzling cosmopolitan Alexandria at the time of Eratosthenes, or Baghdad or Cordoba or Jingdezhen.

And the advance of science was pan-European. But the industrial revolution started in Britain.

Scientific advance from Copernicus to Carnot was pan-European, and in the late nineteenth century became strikingly German. Yet the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was strikingly British. And despite the mistaken rhetoric of late Victorian "failure," the British continued into the late nineteenth and indeed into the twentieth century to be great innovators: the military tank, penicillin, jet planes, radar. It is conventional to observe that unlike the French or Germans the British were not significant theorists (with rare if glorious exceptions like Newton, Darwin, Maxwell, Kelvin, Hawking), but that they were nonetheless very significant tinkerers and muddlers through. Technologists. Bourgeois.
So it is the kind of science and technology, and why it gets pursued, and used, and protected from resistance that matters.

There have been many periods of scientific leaps - which are then smothered or wither. There is nothing inevitable or mechanical about societies continuing to pursue science and technology. Quite the opposite.


No comments:

Post a Comment