To Light Such a Candle: Chapters in the History of Science and Technology

To Light Such a Candle: Chapters in the History of Science and Technology

To Light Such a Candle: Chapters in the History of Science and Technology

To Light Such a Candle: Chapters in the History of Science and Technology


In To light such a candle, renowned chemist and science historian Keith Laidler examines the progress of science and technology over the centuries, tracing the often separate paths of these pursuits, showing how they have ultimately worked together to transform everyday life. Faraday's pure research on electricity, for example, had immense technological implications, while Maxwell's theory of electromagnetic radiation led directly to the discovery of radio transmission, something of which Maxwell himself had no conception. Conversely, the early steam engines were by no means science-based, but they led directly to the science of thermodynamics, one of the most fundamental branches of pure science. Illuminated by many fascinating stories from the history of science, this book provides a powerful argument for the relevance of pure research, and gives the general reader and scientist alike an idea of the nature and importance of the links between science and technology.


Most scientists feel that there is a need for better communication between themselves and the general public. Politicians make many decisions relating to science and technology, but scientists are often convinced that the wrong decisions were made because of ignorance of the true issues. Popular movements frequently take up causes without a correct assessment of the science involved--or so it appears to many scientists. How can these misunderstandings be avoided?

In this book I have tried to deal with what I think may be the heart of the difficulty, the confusion that exists in people's minds between science and technology. The relationship between the two is a complex and changing one. I have taken seven themes in science and technology, and have tried to explain in straightforward language how they have developed. The seven themes, in Chapters 2 to 8, can be briefly summarized as: steam engines, photography, electric power, radio transmission, electronics, large molecules, and nuclear power. All of these themes belong to what is called hard science, which is the kind of science that can be formulated mathematically, and can be tested by experiment.

The first two themes are different from the others, in that technology, not based on science at all, came first, and led to great advances both in science and technology. In the other five, which came later, pure science was followed by technology that would have been impossible without the science.

What is striking when we compare these seven themes is that there is a great diversity in the way they developed. There is obviously no simple relationship between science and technology: a brief account of the matter is sure to get it wrong. One lesson we learn is that when pure science is being done, and sometimes long after it is done, it is usually impossible to predict what the consequences will be. This shows how important it is to support pure science even if it has no obvious consequences. The important criterion should be the quality of the work, not its possible practical applications.

It may be useful to summarize here the conclusions that seem to arise inevitably from the discussions in the present book:

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