In a book called The Rational Optimist from 2010 Matt Ridley strikes out in favor for a highly positive outlook for the future of Man. The book was discussed on wsj.com, http://www.thegwpf.org/opinion-pros-a-cons/1938-matt-ridley-vs-bill-gates.html, by Bill Gates and Matt Ridley. Matt Ridley took a PhD in Zoology 1983 and then worked at The Economist from 1984-1992.
Ridley does not talk about political problems of mankind like the coming and going of wars. He is concerned with the continuous advance of technology and living standards due to human exchange, or trade, and specialization. He does very few comparisons of civilizations. He sees innovation like a "bush fire" that flares up here and there and then dies out. He does not delve into the very interesting question of why this is so.
Ridley is the first person I encountered that does not think science is the mother of innovation in technology. He thinks it rather the other way around. But if you ask the question why the latest bush fire, that I believe is very different from earlier ones, the scientific revolution occurred, was that something happened in the mind of people in Europe that then opened for innovation. Scientific breakthroughs generated this new mind set from a base of a certain maturity of Christianity and political development around.
In this regard Ridley is not separating basic science from R&D. He does not separate the more spiritual part of investigative human behavior from the engineering part. Basic science creates the mood of innovation R&D creates products. He says "few of the inventions that made the industrial revolution owed anything to scientific theory". However, both the way they worked and the way they thought were influenced by earlier science.
One question that keeps appearing is for what Nobel Prizes should be awarded. I recently heard a suggestion that institutions rather than individuals should be considered. The person was at CERN and they have problems with who should get the prize for the Higgs particle. Another difficulty is the difference between prizes for new knowledge or for methods that generate new knowledge. An old example of this is the telescope that was invented by Lippershey who did not do science but that was quickly adapted for scientific productive work by Galileo.
The problem with the institutional idea is that part of the benefit of awarding prizes in science is that people like to have role models to look up to which is more difficult with an institution. Propinquity is proven important in science but individualism is equally important.
What I like with Ridley's book, however, is that it illustrates the way to think about the future. Science and innovation is speeding up rather than slowing down and we can expect to see our present world as old and out of date anytime soon. Moving into the future at the present pace is a spiritual endeavor.
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