Why is science so sloooow 2

05/08/2010

Updating Magic Universe

WHY IS SCIENCE SO SloooOW? — continued

The modest output of major discoveries compared with a century ago, despite the huge increase in the scientific workforce, was the theme of an earlier post on this subject, which you can see here https://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/05/06/why-is-science-so-sloooow/ . A relevant extract  from the Magic Universe story on “Discovery” included this paragraph about the use of peer review to resist the funding and publication of novel research.

As a self-employed, independent researcher, the British chemist James Lovelock was able to speak his mind, and explain how the system discourages creativity. ‘Before a scientist can be funded to do a research, and before he can publish the results of his work, it must be examined and approved by an anonymous group of so-called peers. This inquisition can’t hang or burn heretics yet, but it can deny them the ability to publish their research, or to receive grants to pay for it. It has the full power to destroy the career of any scientist who rebels.’

Lovelock made those remarks in a lecture in 1989, but the situation remains grim. This month the life sciences magazine The Scientist has interesting articles on peer review.

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Ceramic superconductors disappoint

28/06/2010

Predictions revisited

Why ceramic superconductors are disappointing

Helping to explain one of the biggest let-downs of 20th Century technology is a report from a US-European team centred at the University of Florida. It was released yesterday online by Nature Physics. Any scientifically minded person over 35 may remember the huge excitement about ceramic superconductors in 1987. For example, Time magazine called them “a discovery that could change the world” and continued:

That discovery, most scientists believe, could lead to incredible savings in energy; trains that speed across the countryside at hundreds of miles per hour on a cushion of magnetism; practical electric cars; powerful, yet smaller computers and particle accelerators; safer reactors operating on nuclear fusion rather than fission and a host of other rewards still undreamed of. There might even be benefits for the Strategic Defense Initiative, which could draw on efficient, superconductor power sources for its space-based weapons.

Most scientists believe.” Now where have we heard that before?

Writing in Scientific Europe (1990), Ian Corbett of the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Lab summarized the ceramics story, but much more cautiously.

Sensational events are rare in materials science, but superconducting ceramics attracted media attention of a kind normally reserved for football cup finals. In a heady year that followed their discovery in 1986, even respected newspapers implied that our lives were going to be revolutionized overnight, and that an instant fortune awaited anyone who was quick off the mark in exploiting the new superconductors commercially. Such exaggerated expectations were soon damped down by the reality of the technical problems still be overcome.

The scientific breakthrough was real enough. The phenomenon of superconductivity, in which a material loses all resistance to the flow of an electric current, was previously known only in certain metals and alloys, and at temperatures below -250 oC, close to absolute zero. A wholly new class of superconductors opens the way to higher operating temperatures and presumably to wider applications in the electrical and electronic ind ustries.

Georg Bednorz (left) and Alex Muller. Image AIP

In the autumn of 1987 one of the fastest Nobel Prizes ever was awarded to Georg Bednorz and Alex Muller of IBM’s Research Laboratories at Ruschlikon near Zurich – just a year after the first publication, in Zeitschrift für Physik, of their observation of apparent superconductivity in a ceramic material, lanthanum-barium-copper oxide, and at a somewhat higher temperature than any previously authenticated in other materials.

The promise of new applications remains, but unless another unexpected discovery changes the prospects, the road ahead appears at the time of writing to be long and stony.

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Wisdom of Kilgore Trout

25/06/2010

Predictions Revisited, Updating Magic Universe, and Climate Change: News & Comments

The Wisdom of Kilgore Trout

While checking a reference for yesterday’s posting I came across an epigram concerning human behaviour that I declared, back in 1983, should rank with Einstein’s E=mc2 in physics. I quoted it in 1984 and After, but it really ought to be written on every blackboard in the world.

Who said so? None other than Kilgore Trout, the imaginary science fiction writer invented by the real-life science fiction writer, Kurt Vonnegut. In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut re-caps a Trout story called Plague on Wheels.

A space traveller called Kago told the Earthlings about the self-reproducing automobiles on a dying planet named Lingo-Three.

Kago did not know that human beings could be as easily felled by a single idea as by cholera or the bubonic plague. There was no immunity to cuckoo ideas on Earth.” Within a century of Kago’s arrival the Earth was dying too, littered with the shells of automobiles.

Getting an interview with Vonnegut was never easy, but when I managed it my key question was whether Kilgore Trout’s epigram expressed his own opinion. He said, Yes it did.

Before this accidental prompt, I wasn’t going to bother to comment on a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, no less. Anderegg et al. claim that scientists convinced about man-made global warming are cleverer and better respected, as well as much more numerous, than scientists who are unconvinced.

Now I’ll say that it’s scary but not surprising that the National Academy of Sciences should permit a division of experts into an ingroup and an outgroup, and an evaluation of them by arbitrary tests that have nothing whatever to do with the inherent substance or merit of their research. Unsurprising because it accords with Kilgore Trout’s insight into human behaviour, which has been well verified in psychological experiments.

Alec Nisbett of BBC-TV filmed one experiment called Klee-Kandinsky, executed for real with unsuspecting schoolboys, for our documentary “The Human Conspiracy” (1975).  I also summarize the experiment in Magic Universe, in the story “Altruism and aggression: looking for the origins of those human alternatives”.

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Why is science so sloooow

06/05/2010

Updating Magic Universe

WHY IS SCIENCE SO SLoooOW?

Despite the vast increases in the number of researchers and their funding, can anyone claim that the major discoveries of the past two decades are noticeably more glittering or more rapid than those of a century ago? The first two columns show discoveries selected in Magic Universe, and the third has the seven choicest from Breakthrough of the Year in Science magazine.

A provocative story in Magic Universe has the title “DISCOVERY: why the top experts are usually wrong”. It is largely about the battles that many discoverers still have with the scientific establishment. As for the point in the subtitle, it is childishly simple:

As there is not the slightest sign of any end to science, as a process of discovery, a moment’s reflection tells you that this means that the top experts are usually wrong. One of these days, what each of them now teaches to students and tells the public will be faulted, or be proved grossly inadequate, by a major discovery. If not, the subject must be moribund.

More subtle (I hope) is the evidence adduced for the harm science does to itself by its highly organized resistance to discovery. That’s why I have compared the big advances of the 1990s with those of the 1890s to show there is no sign of acceleration.

The only aim in this Update is to check that the 1990s were not an anomalously unlucky decade. To generate a new list of my own might take weeks of study, so I’ve resorted to Science magazine’s annual “Breakthrough of the Year” for 2000-09. In order to match the seven items per decade used earlier I’ve left out the three least impressive “breakthroughs” (2004 avian influenza, 2007 global warming, and 2009 Ardipithecus ramidus).

Dear reader, you can add or subtract whatever you like, but I don’t think you’ll find we live in any sort of golden age of discovery. So why not?

I mention in Magic Universe that the needless delays and inefficiencies of current science give more time for the world at large to adapt to the consequences of discoveries. But that is not a policy democratically prescribed by taxpayers who fund the research. Having checked (to my own satisfaction) that it doesn’t need revising, I shall simply repeat what I have about science’s self-harm, within that “Discovery” story.

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