The Myth of Basic Science

Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal:

ScreenHunter_1474 Oct. 29 20.18Innovation is a mysteriously difficult thing to dictate. Technology seems to change by a sort of inexorable, evolutionary progress, which we probably cannot stop—or speed up much either. And it’s not much the product of science. Most technological breakthroughs come from technologists tinkering, not from researchers chasing hypotheses. Heretical as it may sound, “basic science” isn’t nearly as productive of new inventions as we tend to think.

Suppose Thomas Edison had died of an electric shock before thinking up the light bulb. Would history have been radically different? Of course not. No fewer than 23 people deserve the credit for inventing some version of the incandescent bulb before Edison, according to a history of the invention written by Robert Friedel, Paul Israel and Bernard Finn.

The same is true of other inventions. Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell filed for a patent on the telephone on the very same day. By the time Google came along in 1996, there were already scores of search engines. As Kevin Kelly documents in his book “What Technology Wants,” we know of six different inventors of the thermometer, three of the hypodermic needle, four of vaccination, five of the electric telegraph, four of photography, five of the steamboat, six of the electric railroad. The history of inventions, writes the historian Alfred Kroeber, is “one endless chain of parallel instances.”

It is just as true in science as in technology. Boyle’s law in English-speaking countries is the same thing as Mariotte’s Law in French-speaking countries. Isaac Newton vented paroxysms of fury at Gottfried Leibniz for claiming, correctly, to have invented the calculus independently. Charles Darwin was prodded into publishing his theory at last by Alfred Russel Wallace, who had precisely the same idea after reading precisely the same book, Malthus’s “Essay on Population.”

Increasingly, technology is developing the kind of autonomy that hitherto characterized biological entities.

More here.