Spotlight | Science, Technology, and Society
Loren Graham on sources of innovation
"You hear a lot of talk about how science and technology affect society. You don’t hear much about how societies affect science and technology, but I think they do,” says Loren Graham, Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at MIT. “Society influences the way we think.”
This claim expresses a theme that has run through Graham’s work for more that 50 years — 36 of them at MIT — from Naming Infinity, his prize-winning treatise on the nature of infinity, to The Face in the Rock, his history of the Chippewa of Grand Island, Michigan.
“There’s a tendency," he notes, "not only in society at large, but even at MIT, to think of science and technology as something separate from social, political, ideological, and religious elements. I disagree,” he says. “The knowledge we get from the humanities, arts, and social sciences can make us understand science better.”
When Einstein realized Newtonian physics was breaking down, for example, he started reading the philosophical works of Immanuel Kant, Ernst Mach, and others. “He got ideas, inspiration, and motivations out of these writings that helped him go forward,” Graham says. “They were important to him at the moment of crisis. And that’s often true.”
Lonely Ideas: Can Russia Compete
(MIT Press, 2013)