Brain Pickings

Freeman Dyson on Tool-Creation, Technology, and What Makes a Scientific Revolution

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“In every human culture, the hand and the brain work together to create the style that makes a civilization.”

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward, Steve Jobs famously said, “you can only connect them looking backwards.” The same is true of technology and its impact on civilization — thousands of years later, we are able to appreciate the linkage between the products of our mind and the tools we create to further their reach. This is the basic lens of The Sun, The Genome, and The Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolution (public library) by legendary Princeton physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson (father of science historian George Dyson), originally published in 1999. Tool-creation has been indispensable to scientific progress, Dyson argues — and has been since the dawn of techne.

Science originated from the fusion of two old traditions, the tradition of philosophical thinking that began in ancient Greece and the tradition of skilled crafts that began even earlier and flourished in medieval Europe. Philosophy supplied the concepts for science, and skilled crafts provided the tools.

Dyson refutes the idea that scientific revolutions are concept-driven, a stance pioneered by Thomas Kuhn in his controversial 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and later endorsed by other theory-driven scientists. Instead, Dyson argues, the art of tool-creation is its relationship to science.

The human heritage that gave us toolmaking hands and inquisitive brains did not die. In every human culture, the hand and the brain work together to create the style that makes a civilization….

Science will continue to generate unpredictable new ideas and opportunities. And human beings will continue to respond to new ideas and opportunities with new skills and inventions. We remain toolmaking animals, and science will continue to exercise the creativity programmed into our genes.

Sole discovery, Dyson asserts, is simply inadequate to account for change. Instead, real, functional projects are the basis of revolutions, implicitly adding to history’s greatest definitions of science:

A sustainable project marks the beginning of a new era. An unsustainable project marks the end of an old era.

Lexi Lewtan is an avid reader, writer, and technology nerd. You can find her on geeking out on Twitter and Quora.

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