Article Index Next Article Previous Article Feedback to Editor ORNL Review Home Page

Chapter 9: Global Outreach

Back to Chapter 9


The relationship between science and technology is a subject in which historians and policymakers take great interest. In the classic paradigm, scientists seek knowledge of basic physical principles or natural laws and technologists apply this knowledge to invention. Albert Einstein exemplified 20th-century scientists. He identified general and specific physical laws that subsequently were verified by experiments. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and the Wright brothers were epitomized 20th-century technologists. 

Science, to borrow a phrase, is the mother of invention, according to theory. Einstein's theories certainly led to inventions, the atomic bomb and nuclear reactor counted among them. But did the Wright brothers know anything about science? How about Thomas Edison or Henry Ford? Who or what were the scientific mothers of their inventions? 

The issue has affected policy decisions for decades. If science is the mother of invention and technology is only applied science, then pumping funding into science will produce inventions useful to a society and profitable for business. It has happened: nylon, radar, radio, television, transistors, and lasers are examples. 

If, on the other hand, useful inventions and technological improvements can be produced without increased scientific knowledge, then why not take the short cut? Allocate funding directly to technology to achieve quick results and reduce or eliminate funding for science. 

Differing science-technology paradigms adopted during the Laboratory's first 50 years have had a major influence on its budget and activities. Funding for basic sciences, especially nuclear science, was strong during the Laboratory's early years. During the 1960s and 1970s, substantial increases in the Laboratory budget for technology development came in response to demands for more "socially relevant" science and for solutions to the national energy crisis, and in the 1980s, the policy pendulum swung back toward "high-risk, high-return" basic science. 

Yet, the traditional distinction between science and technology is, and always has been, blurred at the Laboratory. When Arthur Compton sent Enrico Fermi to Oak Ridge in 1942, he wished him success with his "greatest of all practical physics experiments." 

The Laboratory's leadership throughout its first 50 years has come from managers with multiple areas of expertise. Eugene Wigner was a chemical engineer who became a physicist. Alvin Weinberg was a biologist and a physicist. Floyd Culler was a chemical engineer who acquired great understanding of science. Herman Postma and Alex Zucker were scientists who worked closely with the engineering design of fusion and cyclotron devices. And Alvin Trivelpiece is an engineer who became a physicist. These men managed the application of the Laboratory's industrial capabilities to the solution of scientific challenges. 

To reverse the classic paradigm, sometimes technology becomes the mother of science. Scientists apply new technology to their own research. In astronomy, as a prime example, telescopes, radios, rockets, and satellites have provided astronomers new insights into the functioning of the distant universe. Swift application of technological innovations to scientific research also has marked the Laboratory's history. 

The Laboratory represented, at its founding in 1943, a merger of science and technology, and this diversity has been one of its great strengths throughout its history. The emphasis placed on one aspect or the other of the Laboratory's character has changed over the years, but the effort has always had the same goal: a melding of theory and application that serves as a catalyst for advancement. 

Beginning of Article

Related Web sites

ORNL Review
ORNL Time Line

Historical Photo Gallery

Other ORNL History Resources

Search Magazine 
Article Index Next Article Previous Article Feedback to Editor ORNL Review Home Page