Saturday, December 18, 2010

Science, Technology and Innovation

Yesterday I posted a graph of the relative frequencies of the words "science" and "technology" in the Google Books corpus of more than five million books. The graph above adds the term "innovation" to the graph, limiting it to the second half of the 20th century.

During World War II, with the military importance of radar and the atomic bomb, people noticed that science could yield things of practical value. Recall that in older European culture, there was a profound difference between "gentlemen" who did not work with their hands, and working men who did. In England, that distinction hangs over in the distinction between physicians and surgeons. In the past, physicians were trained in universities and limited their medical interventions to diagnosis and prescription; today in England they still are called doctor. In the distant past, surgeons learned surgery by work by apprenticeship to working surgeons and not only performed surgery with their hands but got bloody in the process; today in England they still proudly are referred to as Mister.

The introduction of the term "high technology" seems to correlate with the increase in the frequency of the word "technology" in the literature. Computers, software, microelectronics, space technology, lasers and fiber optics, and later biotechnology became economically important. It became clear that there were new jobs for people with new technical skills. The United Nations even held world meetings on "science and technology".

It is now becoming more evident that the practical importance of science and technology results not from discovery but from application of knowledge. It is not simply invention of something that counts but its practical application. "Innovation" is coming to be distinguished from "invention" to reflect the introduction of an invention into commercial application. I expect to see the term further increase in frequency of use.

Words count, since so often we think in words and we communicate complex concepts through words. The Ngram Viewer traces how ofter a concept conveyed by a word appears in the literature, and thus is an indication of the degree to which people are trying to convey information related to that concept. As people write more about technology and innovation, so too we may expect that people will think about the organized body of knowledge about practical arts and crafts and how it may be applied to improve our lives.

No comments: