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the Complete Review
the complete review - science / technology

The Genesis of
Technoscientific Revolutions

Venkatesh Narayanamurti
Jeffrey Y. Tsao

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To purchase The Genesis of Technoscientific Revolutions

Title: The Genesis of Technoscientific Revolutions
Author: Venkatesh Narayanamurti / Jeffrey Y. Tsao
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2021
Length: 208 pages
Availability: The Genesis of Technoscientific Revolutions - US
The Genesis of Technoscientific Revolutions - UK
The Genesis of Technoscientific Revolutions - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Harvard University Press
  • Rethinking the Nature and Nurture of Research

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good consideration of the scientific method and the functioning of research (institutes)

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       As they explain in the Introduction, in The Genesis of Technoscientific Revolutions Venkatesh Narayanamurti and Jeffrey Y. Tsao hope to: "present a modern rethinking of the nature and nurturing of research, with the aim of significantly improving the effectiveness of research". Harking back to the great industrial research laboratories of the twentieth century such as Bell Labs (where Narayanamurti worked from 1968 to 1987) and Xerox PARC, they note that:

(I)n the latter quarter of the twentieth century continuing into the first quarter of the twenty-first century, modern science began to shift its emphasis to short-term and narrower measures of return on capital invested and to a transactional "what's in it for me" approach to research. The consequence was that the great industrial research laboratories shifted their emphasis from research to development and, in some cases, eliminated research entirely.
       By showing the advantages and benefits of a much longer-term horizon, the authors hope to encourage a re-set which again allows for much freer and more open-ended scientific inquiry -- which, they also argue, is ultimately more productive.
       A starting point for them is their emphasis on the fact that:
The scientific method is made much more productive when technology can be used as a tool for experiments. In other words, science and technology coevolve in what we will call a larger technoscientific method: science draws on technology to discover new facts, while technology draws on science to invent new forms with which to fulfill human-desired functions.
       They emphasize that science (S) and technology (T) are not static but rather (co)evolve and grow, cleverly and usefully representing this by the notation: and (using: "the mathematics notation for dots above quantities to denote time rates of change of those quantities"). As they acknowledge, the notation here is: "symbolic rather than quantitatively definitional", but it proves a helpful reminder to readers to think of both as constantly progressing rather than reaching definitive end-points.
       The first three of the four chapters of the book consider scientific method and the advancement of science and engineering, both theoretically and with examples. In a sense, much of this is a consideration of both the history and philosophy of science -- and much of it is fascinating as such. Throughout, the interplay of science and technology in furthering both is emphasized, Narayanamurti and Tsao making a good case for how they (can) feed off one another, the one leading to advances in the other in a mutually reïnforcing spiral of advancement. In particular, each can push the other beyond bounds that arise in isolation -- as, for example, as they point out:
Science is a conservative force that often denies the possibility of new technologies that are inconsistent with current scientific understanding but that turn out to be possible after all.
       Among the interesting observations is how successful advances, scientific or technological, can also prove, in some respects, limiting, as, for example:
     Likewise, when a technological form helps fulfill a multiplicity of functions, the form becomes embedded in a larger web of internally self-reinforcing technological knowledge, with significant inertia acting against replacement. The deep embeddedness of von Neumann computation architectures in virtually all computing applications delayed significantly the use, beginning in the 2010s, of the graphical processing units that have now revolutionized deep neural network computation.
       As Narayanamurti and Tsao suggest, the healthy, constant exchange between science and technology can facilitate clearing these hurdles -- not least in a constantly advancing spiral of questions and answers. Here, again, they also emphasize the necessity of not considering things statically: answers to specific questions should lead to new questions. (They again use the mathematical notation as a helpful reminder, and Ȧ.) The focus on questions is a useful corrective; as the authors note: "The prevailing emphasis on finding answers rather than finding questions is also illustrated by the increasingly popular equating of the scientific method with hypothesis-testing (a kind of answer-finding)", when in fact there is considerably more to it.
       A variety of familiar examples are used to make their points, from the special theory of relativity to the iPhone to artificial lighting. Clearly and straightforwardly presented, the first three chapters of The Genesis of Technoscientific Revolutions are a very useful contribution to ways of thinking about scientific method, not least in their emphasis on scientific discovery as opposed to simply on testing and verification, an area that, as they note, has often been neglected by those working in the philosophy of science.
       The final chapter of the book offers: 'Guiding Principles for Nurturing Research', suggesting how to create an environment and organization that allows for the expansive research Narayanamurti and Tsao would like to encourage. Here much of the advice is practical -- and, at a basic level, even very general (i.e. not just limited to the activities they are encouraging). So, for example, they suggest three guiding principles, and the third of these is: "nurture people with care and accountability" -- which, one would think, applies to basically any kind of organization.
       It is the second guiding principle they propose that is based most obviously on what they have previously presented: "embrace a culture of holistic technoscientific exploration". This includes embracing a long-term outlook, and accepting failure; as they note, the current environment makes this difficult for corporation-based and -affiliated research institutions to do -- but a variety of organizations, including universities, are still well-equipped to take such an approach (and, indeed, many already/still do, to varying degrees).
       Throughout, Narayanamurti and Tsao also focus on the people involved, and the place of their discoveries in the larger context. As they emphasize:
Today's research universities, research institutes, and national and international laboratories are social enterprises.
       So also they point out that: "The fundamental units of research, however, are not projects but people -- research leadership and researchers themselves", and so among their suggestions is that: "it is people, not projects, that must be funded". Of course, this can be difficult to put into practice: the ideal may be obvious enough, but actually putting it into practice is not quite as straightforward. So also with their hopes for the kind of people who should assume the leadership roles at such institutions, not least given the demands on such figures to attract donors and support for their institutions, which can easily come to be at at least some odds with the kind of fostering of research Narayanamurti and Tsao are advocating.
       Clear and to the point, The Genesis of Technoscientific Revolutions is a successful two-part book. If the second part -- the final chapter -- can feel slightly generic, with a fair bit of often very familiar organizational and management advice, at least much of it is tied in well and connected to the preceding case for a technoscientific approach that the authors present so very well in the book's first three chapters.
       The Genesis of Technoscientific Revolutions book is a useful contribution to the study of scientific method and should be of considerable interest to anyone interested in the history and/or the philosophy of science (and technology). Meanwhile, the final chapter will be of most use to those involved in the running and supporting of research institutions, and they are certainly encouraged to closely consider Narayanamurti and Tsao's recommendations and suggestions.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 March 2022

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The Genesis of Technoscientific Revolutions: Venkatesh Narayanamurti: Jeffrey Y. Tsao: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Venkatesh Narayanamurti (b. 1939) is the Benjamin Peirce Professor of Technology and Public Policy, Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Physics, Emeritus at Harvard.

       Jeffrey Y. Tsao (b. 1955) is Senior Scientist at the Sandia National Laboratories.

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© 2022 the complete review

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