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Create First

We have long heard that science is important because scientific discoveries enable technologies that make peoples’ lives better.

What is amazing about this assertion is that it is almost universally accepted – but it is not, on the whole, true.

Historian Phillip Glass points out that the general trend is in fact the other way around! Telescopes and spectacles were not invented by scientists but by craftsman who were experimenting. Scientists came along later and used the technological tools to study the skies.

Likewise the history of human technological innovation is dominated by human invention which then enables science – not science that enables invention! Running water and sewage systems and shoes all predated the germ theory of disease that, much later, would explain how people get sick. The history of medicine is full of examples of medicines that work, but nobody is quite sure why until much later (think of aspirin, and penicillin). And forces like gravity, which can be described and modelled very beautifully by science, are still not understood. That has not stopped anyone from harnessing gravity in countless human-made machines and mechanisms.

Technology is human creation for the purpose of doing something – not for the sake of knowledge itself.

Science, on the other hand, is often an investigation into the natural world, to understand and explain the energies and masses of the universe, from galaxies to single atoms.

We should not oversimplify: in developed form, science and technology can and do work together. And there are exceptions, such as nuclear fission, where science postulated something that was tested afterward, following the “accepted” version of how things are supposed to work. But these remain exceptions. Technology, by and large, has led the way. Engineers, those much-maligned junior cousins of “Scientists”, design and develop the computers that scientists use, the software that run those computers, the cars and trains and airplanes that scientists use to attend conferences. Humans were harnessing fossil fuels long before scientists posited that they came from fossils.

Henry Ford did not invent the assembly line. He appointed bright people, and then left them alone. Over the course of a few years, the moving assembly line popped up from the grass roots, such an egalitarian development that the official company magazine did not even recognize what had happened until well after the fact. And the process that was begun in the early part of the 20th century continues today. The most productive factories are not those that are designed by great minds on a clean sheet of paper; the best factories are those that involve every worker on the floor, each as free as possible to improve what they contribute to the whole. And then the great minds study what has worked, and they use it as the baseline for the next great factory.

Human creation, is typically not actually achieved through a great thinker in an iory tower. It is usually achieved through hands-on work: tinkering, crafting, active experimentation.[1] People do, and the doing makes it possible for people to understand.

When the Jewish people accepted the Torah, they said “na’aseh v’nishma”, “we will do and we will hearken.” And we find that this is the pattern that works best when it comes to other kinds of knowledge as well. WD-40, the ubiquitous machine spray, was not invented in the mind. Thirty-nine previous formulations were tried, and found wanting. The fortieth worked. And so much of life follows this process of trial-and-error.

Na’aseh v’nishmah. “We will do and (then) we will hearken,” is commonly understood to mean that it is obligatory on us to follow G-d’s commandments even before we understand them.

But, in the same way that G-d created things before he assessed whether they were good or not, and in the same way in which we are supposed to use our eyes not to lead us to what we want, but instead to evaluate what we have done after the fact, so, too, na’aseh v’nishma is a lesson in how mankind is supposed to create new things. Make it, then break it, then try again.

What does it mean? Creating new things is actually a prerequisite for knowing G-d’s creations, unlocking a window into the creations that preceded our own.

And this creation has been performed by countless people for millenia. Blacksmiths and coopers and glass blowers may be replaced by millions of independent software writers, but the principle remains the same: emulating G-d’s creative acts is not reserved for the brilliant few in their academies, but is instead a profoundly egalitarian activity. Anyone who is willing to try something new can invent. And anyone who is open to believing that their actions and inventions can be important, can take the time to document what they have achieved, and share it with others.

This may help explain why science in the last few decades has erected barriers against would-be posers who lack the proper qualifications, or have new ideas that have not been formally vetted. It is increasingly clear that we do not have a world in which the elite few do the thinking for everyone else, but instead a world in which clever people can – and do – invent new things and debunk old and erroneous assumptions.


[1] We see it in other forms of human creation besides technology, of course. Take art. Great experts on art don’t posit what would be beautiful. They look at what has already been created, and then they tell us why it is beautiful.

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