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extended the uses of aspirin but also found other applications such as anti-allergy medications.


Finally, new knowledge is limited by research technology, and this creates another feedback loop from techniques to the underlying bases. The human senses and mind are inherently limited in what they can observe and how fast they can process information. The research technology constrains what society can “know.” Without X-ray diffraction, the structure of large molecules could not have been deciphered, and we would not have molecular biology in its present form any more than we would have had the electrical telegraph without the Voltaic pile. Our senses limit us to a fairly narrow slice of the universe which have been called a “mesocosm”: we cannot see things that are too far away, too small, or not in the visible light spectrum, but microscopes and telescopes can extend it beyond measure.15 We can only compute so fast, but we can extend our limits by adopting roman numerals, logarithmic tables, modern calculators and fast computers.

Technology only becomes “self-evident” when these epistemic bases have been created. When that has happened, techniques often – but by no means always — are so obvious that simultaneous invention has been widely observed.16 One should not overstate this case: even when the knowledge base is “available” there is nothing automatic about invention. Even a scholar as sophisticated as Eric Jones (2002, ch. 3, p. 20) believes that “Technology seems to offer ‘free lunches’ but its spectacular gains are really secondary; they are attainable by any society that invests in institutions to encourage invention and enterprise.”17 Yet throughout history things that were knowable but not known were the chief reason why societies were limited in their ability to provide material comforts. Once the knowledge is created, society needs to set up the incentives to reward those who apply the knowledge after it was created. This means a different set of intellectual property rights, which in the modern west took the form of patent legislation as well as personal rewards and pensions to distinguished inventors. Such rewards and incentives could however have other dimensions such as socially prestigious titles,

14Another example is the use of aluminum. The hardening-process of aluminum in which the metal hardens slowly over the week following heating and quenching was discovered accidentally by Alfred Wilm in 1909 and eventually led to the use of aluminum in all aircraft construction. Metallurgists had a difficult time explaining the phenomenon of age hardening, and it took years until even a partial epistemic base had been uncovered (Alexander, 1978, p. 439). Advances in metallography due to electron microscopy eventually provided the understanding that hardening is caused by the dispersion of very fine precipitates from the supersaturated solid solution; controlling these raises the strength of the metal. The principles of precipitation hardening discovered from aluminum have been applied to the strengthening of a large number of alloys.

15Franz Wuketits, Evolutionary Epistemology and Its Implications for Humankind. 1990, pp. 92, 105.

16Such simultaneity has often been interpreted as evidence for the importance of demand factors, arguing that when market conditions are “ripe” someone will make an invention. In fact, simultaneity may reflect little more than different inventors having access to common pools of useful knowledge.

17Eric Jones, The Record of Global Economic Development, 2002, ch. 3, p. 20.

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