Science + PracticeDefine “technology.”

Don’t feel bad; everyone thinks they know the answer, but all of us need to mull it over a bit.

     The word itself can be traced to the early 17th century when folks like Galileo, Newton and Shakespeare were making their mark in history. It comes from the Greek tekhnologia, which means ‘systematic treatment’. The broad definition is the “application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.” The key words are “science”, and “practical.”

     Back in the 17th century when the word “technology” was still young, Anton Van Leeuwenhoek of Holland was selling cloth in a store where magnifying glasses were used to count the threads. He experimented with grinding and polishing lenses, ultimately setting a new record for magnification at 270X (for comparison, a modern AFM has a magnification of ~ 1,000,000X).

     You could easily stop here with this example; Anton had applied the science of optics to the practice of counting threads. This was dry goods technology at its finest.

     But this particular Dutchman was more interested in optics than in thread counts. Weaving his new scientific knowledge of light and glass together with some earlier work (Janssen, 1590) on multiple lenses, he went on to become the first person to observe the circulation of blood cells in capillaries, and to see and describe bacteria. Anton Van Leeuwenhoek had applied the science of optics to the very practical observation of the fundamental processes of life.

     Whether you’re putting a camera in a phone, or laying the foundation for modern biology, science-turned-practical changes the human race in profound ways. A journey of examples might lead from the wheel to the Internet, passing through the printing press and refrigeration along the way.

     That, in short, is technology.  It’s critical to note that there are basically two kinds – proactive and reactive.  The reactive stuff seeks a better way, while the proactive boldly says let’s do this because we can, and then see what happens.  The first kind makes our journey a little easier, while the second sends our culture careening off in entirely new directions.

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