Friday, March 17, 2023

Scientific Equipment

Galileo did not invent the telescope. Galileo looked at the night sky with a telescope that someone else built. Scientists do sometimes invent and build the equipment they need, but in general scientists take advantage of existing equipment to enable them to do science. Science is not a free-standing activity; it is an integral part of a much larger world. Science uses its connections with the world, just as the world uses science.

This relationship of mutual use creates a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Scientific discoveries enable new equipment to be constructed, and new equipment enables yet further scientific discoveries. The astounding technological capabilities of our time are the fruit of this system. However, the system is more complex. Our global-scale industry has global-scale impact on the environment. Climate change may be the most immediate concern, but we are seeing many other effects too. It is of course difficult to predict exactly how environmental limits will impace the availability of scientific equipment. But a starting point would be a reflection on the variety of ways that science uses what the world makes available.

Instruments with which to observe and measure natural phenomena are surely at the head of the list. Nowadays we have telescopes in orbit, detecting a wide range of electromagnetic frequencies: not just in orbit around earth, but around other planets too. And we have robots on the surface of Mars, observing at close range. At the tiniest scale we have particle accelerators and electron microscopes. Chromotography, spectroscopy, magnetic resonance imagery... a catalog of today's observation and measurement equipment would fill an encyclopedia.

Another way that science uses what industry provides is the acquisition of raw materials. All kinds of very pure simple and complex substances are available. There is also a rich variety of materials processing equipment by which raw materials can be processed to form both experimental samples and also custom observational devices. Vacuum pumps are a curious sort of equipment, since their function is to remove material rather than to supply it. But vacuum pumps are fundamental to preparing a suitable environment for observations, back to the time of Boyle at the birth of modern science.

Recording experimental observations can rely on little more than paper and pencil, though nowadays all sorts of automated recording devices make continuous accurate measurement and recording possible. A variety of automated analysis can be performed by computers, so the scientist need only attend to a summary report.

Science is a communal enterprise. Scientists compare results, critique each other's methods, exchange tools and materials, hire each other's students, etc. The worldwide transportation and communication networks make these exchanges possible. Scientists travel, too, to observe phenomena that occur at special locations, such as biological species in their native habitat, or geological phenomena in place.

Another sort of equipment that science needs is social. At the most basic level, there need to be scientists, people with the capability and freedom to pursue scientific research. The various physical equipment necessary must not only exist but be made available for use by scientists. For the self-amplifying feedback loop of scientific advancement to work, industry must be confident in the validity of scientific results so that the know-how produced by science will be applied to produce the next generation of more capable scientific equipment.

The reader is invited to augment this list. But a further exercise is to consider what impact environmental limits might have on any of these sorts of equipment. There could be other potential feedback loops that get excited as we enter some new regime of system behavior. It is not impossible that environmental limits push industry into less efficient processes, which accelerate the impact of those limits.

It seems clear enough that science has a large share of responsibility for creating our modern world, with all its miraculous technological capabilities. That is another facet of the self-amplifying feedback loop: powerful people understand how science has enhanced their power, and so they promote scientific research. We certainly seems to be at very real risk of entering a new regime, where our miraculous technological capabilities are seen instead as driving us ever more violently against environmental limits. Just has science earned support by taking credit, science may well lose support by taking blame.

Science is not a free-standing activity, but is embedded in a multi-faceted world. This relationship has been at the heart of modern industrial civilization, which is about 200 years old. We seem to be headed for a major shift. If science is to survive the shift in good health, the scientific community will need to find ways to adapt to the new patterns.

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