David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize winning scientist and the president of Caltech, once asked me what the difference was between technology and engineering. As the Chair of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science at Caltech, you would think that I would have a good answer to this, but I didn’t. The fact is that the word “technology” has been used in many ways and so it’s sometimes hard to come up with a good definition when someone asks (especially your boss). After thinking about this for a while, I think I’ve finally got an answer for him.
Let’s start with a couple of easier terms: science and engineering. To me, “science is about understanding our world and beyond. “Engineering” is about changing the world around us, and builds upon the understanding that science brings.
What then is "technology"? One definition is the application of scientific principles to create new devices and machines. For example, many people think of information technology as computers, cable modems, and cell phones, which build on the device physics of the transistor. These are the things you can buy at your local store (or online, using some of the very same technology). Nanotechnology involves manipulating individual atoms to form new things like quantum dots and carbon nanotubes These are definitely not available in stores, but they certainly count as technology. Biotechnology can range from pharmaceuticals to pesticides to gene therapy. What, then, do people really mean when they talk about "technology"?
To me, technology is the process by which we take scientific understanding and convert it into engineering practice. We often use the term "high tech" to refer to the most recent and most advanced engineering practice. We often use the term "high tech" to refer to the most recent and most advanced examples of technology. Nanotechnology is definitely high tech. So is biotechnology, especially things like gene therapy. Information technology is still pretty high tech too, although we now take much of it for granted with the advent of the Internet, MP3 players, and PDAs. Building design and construction is probably something most of use would consider "low tech", but in fact technology is at work here too, as we take the latest ideas in science and use them to change the way that we construct tall buildings, roads, and bridges. Indeed, all of engineering is infused with technology, since we never really stop improving the things that we build, and those improvements rely on our understanding of the scientific principles on which those products rely.
No matter which definition you choose, technology is important because it is the conduit by which science affects the world around us. Without technology, we wouldn't have the transportation systems that allow us to fly across the country (or the world) in a matter of hours, the information systems that allow us to talk with anyone on the planet at the press of a few buttons, of the medical systems that keep us alive and healthy so that we can tell young people how hard it was when were growing up. The frontiers of technology are always moving ahead of us, but as we conquer them, we leave behind a tremendous record of achievement.
Institutes of technology—and there are many of them all over the world—are places where my definition of technology thrives. Every day, students and faculty at the world's leading high schools, universities and research institutes take the first step in turning cutting edge science into ideas that no one has thought of before—ideas that will find applications to change out future. So the next time David Baltimore asks me about technology, maybe I'll give him a copy of this issue of Teknos as my answer.
Richard M. Murray
Chair, Division of Engineering and Applied Science
California Institute of Technology