Two books explore winding path from basic science to useful invention

‘How We Got to Now,’ ‘Science Unshackled’ describe how basic research transforms our everyday lives

book covers of How We Got to Now and Science UnshackledHow We Got to Now 
Steve Johnson

Science Unshackled
Johns Hopkins Univ.
C. Renée James

The route from scientific discovery to useful invention is often long, tortuous and extends over a horizon concealing a destination that can’t be seen — or sometimes even imagined. Two new books on the history of technology do a good job chronicling such tales of serendipitous innovation.

In How We Got to Now, best-selling author Johnson traces the development of six technologies vital to modern life from their modest origins to their oft-unintended results. Take artificial refrigeration. Who could have imagined that an entrepreneur’s plan to harvest ice from New England’s frozen lakes and ship it to the Caribbean in the early 1800s — despite skeptics’ ridicule that islanders wouldn’t want anything cold to drink — would eventually enable everything from home air conditioning to in vitro fertilization?

In similarly circuitous and fascinating tales, Johnson recounts how the development of clocks, lenses, water purification, recorded sound and artificial light sculpted the world we inhabit today.

In Science Unshackled, James, an astronomer at Sam Houston State University in Texas, ambitiously takes readers on the same sort of quests but largely focuses on more recent developments. For instance, she describes how mathematical techniques used by astronomers in the search for moderate-sized black holes helped engineers develop Wi-Fi. The study of heat-loving microbes found in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park, she explains, led to genetic techniques vital to forensic investigations, paternity testing and the Human Genome Project.

While How We Got to Now relates technologies largely in terms of their cultural impact, Science Unshackled often provides a detailed look at the basic science behind the innovations themselves.

And by focusing on the scientific foundations for these well-known technologies, Science Unshackled makes a compelling case for continued support for research. While many people fail to see the need for the government to invest in basic science, James cites figures from the National Science Foundation that the United States’ overall expenditures in fundamental research see a return on investment of up to 60 percent.

Both Science Unshackled and How We Got to Now are celebrations of ingenuity and the scientific process. They are filled with troves of examples of how, as the subtitle of James’ book explains, seemingly useless scientific research can transform our lives in important yet often unpredictable ways.

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