Hit the book: how the interplay of science and technology brought the iPhone

Since the invention of the wheel, scientific research and technological progress have complemented each other. Without research, we lack the knowledge base to advance the state of technology, and without technological progress, we lack the functional basis for further scientific exploration. In their new book, The origin of the technological revolutionVenkatesh Narayanamurti, a professor of technology and public policy at Harvard University, and Jeffrey Y. Tsao, a senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratory, discussed the symbiotic relationship between these two concepts and how to adjust their interaction to better serve the 21st century. Accelerate the pace of technological scientific discovery.

Harvard University Press

From The Origin of the Technological and Scientific Revolution: Rethinking the Nature and Cultivation of Research Authors: VENKATESH NARAYANAMURTI and JEFFREY Y. TSAO, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2021 Harvard University President and Researcher. Used with permission. all rights reserved.


The network is hierarchical: the nesting of questions and answers

The hierarchical way of scientific and technical knowledge is derived from the nesting discussed in the previous chapter, including scientific facts and explanations, as well as technical functions and the forms in which they are realized.

Figure 2-1

Harvard University Press

In science, at the top of the hierarchy are facts-primitive patterns in observed phenomena. These patterns can be considered as questions: Why are there specific patterns? Why when a person releases the ball, the farther the ball falls, the faster it falls? The interpretation of these primitive patterns is below one level in the hierarchy and can be considered an answer to these questions: Galileo’s interpretation of the observed distance and time pattern in the 16th century is that the speed of the ball increases linearly with time. But this answer or explanation itself becomes another question: Why does the speed of the ball increase linearly with time? This question needs a deeper explanation and a deeper answer: Newton’s explanation is that gravity is a force. A uniform force causes a uniform acceleration, and a uniform acceleration causes a linear increase in speed. Of course, scientific understanding is always incomplete, so there is always one point we don’t have a deeper explanation. This does not detract from the power of explanations that do exist: science seeks the closest cause, but does not insist on the ultimate cause. General relativity explains Newton’s law of universal gravitation, even if its origin remains to be explained.

In technology, the top of the hierarchy is the function desired by humans. These functions raise problems that are solved by the forms below them in the hierarchy. Forms perform functions, but these forms raise new problems that must be solved sequentially at a deeper level. From the problem-solving nomenclature to the equivalent question-and-answer nomenclature, we can say that the iPhone represents a technical problem: how do we create an Internet-enabled mobile phone with a software-programmable interactive display? The form of the multi-touch capacitive surface provides part of the answer. When multiple fingers are used at the same time, it opens up an important design space for user interaction. But the opacity of the existing multi-touch surface itself becomes a problem: how do we make the multi-touch surface transparent so that the display is visible? The multi-touch transparent surface display provides the answer.

In other words, science and technology are organized into a hierarchy of question and answer pairs, and any question or answer has two “faces.” A face pointing down in the hierarchy represents a question about the answer directly below it in the hierarchy. The other face points upwards in the hierarchy and represents the answer to the question directly above in the hierarchy. We emphasize that our description of the question as the answer to “above” and the answer to “below” is arbitrary-it does not indicate relative importance or value, but just to be consistent with common usage. In science, an explanation is deeper and more “basic” than the facts it explains, especially when it is summarized as an explanation of many other facts. In this sense, the special theory of relativity goes deeper than the constancy of c because it answers the question of why c is a constant; it also answers the question of how much energy is released during nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. In technology, forms are deeper and more “basic” than the functions they achieve, especially if they have been adapted to many other functions. The multi-touch transparent surface display is more basic than the iPhone because it not only helps answer the question of how to create an iPhone, but also helps answer the general question of how to create a human-computer interactive display. Rubber is more basic than bicycle tires because it not only helps answer questions about how to make bicycle tires, but also helps answer questions about how to make countless other types of tires.

The network is modular: to promote development and exploration

Closely related scientific questions and answers are organized into what we might call the scientific field, which we call scientific knowledge modules. Closely interacting technical problems and solutions are organized into engineering components, which we call technical knowledge modules.

Figure 2-2

Harvard University Press

Closely related scientific questions can usually be answered within a scientific knowledge field or a scientific knowledge module, using multiple sub-fields nested within a larger field. Questions related to certain electron transport phenomena in a particular semiconductor structure belong to the broad field of semiconductor science, but the answer may require a comprehensive understanding of the subfields of electron transport physics and the subfield of materials science of composite structures. With electron transport Physics-related sub-problems may require a comprehensive understanding of the electronic subdomains in various structures (bulk materials, heterojunctions, nanostructures, coupled nanostructures) and the subdomains where electrons interact with phonons in these structures. Sub-problems related to materials science of synthetic structures may require understanding of the sub-subdomains of substrate and epitaxy, thin film or material synthesis. In other words, we can think of the scientific knowledge domain as a modular hierarchy and its subdomains as submodules and subsubmodules.

Similarly, closely related technical problems are usually solved by key technical components or technical knowledge modules, and may integrate multiple sub-components nested in larger components. An iPhone is a component in itself, composed of many sub-components, and each sub-component is also subdivided in the same way. We can think of the “problems” of the iPhone as components “solved” by its subcomponents-the case, the display, the printed circuit board, the camera, and the input/output ports. We can regard the “problem” of the printed circuit board as a sub-component, which is “solved” by sub-components including low-power integrated circuit chips. On the contrary, the iPhone is also a component, which itself is nested in the hierarchy of functions. The iPhone may be used to solve the problem of “running” SMS applications; the SMS application may be used to solve the problem of sending a large number of text messages to friends; group texting may solve the problem of organizing friend groups in Times Square; Times The protests in the square may be part of the problem of organizing broader social movements for certain social causes that humans desire.

Someone may ask: Why is scientific and technological knowledge modular? They are modular because they are complex adaptive systems—systems are maintained by complex internal changes and adapt to their environment—and almost all complex adaptive systems are modular (Simon, 1962). Complex adaptive systems both use their environment and explore their environment to improve this utilization. Modularity can improve efficiency, whether in the use of existing environmental knowledge or in exploring the environment to create new knowledge.

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