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Science: A Long Way To Go


  04:10:12 am, by Nimble   , 1029 words  
Categories: Thoughts, Science

Science: A Long Way To Go

It makes me shake my head to hear that we think we're close to solving the ultimate questions. We're not there. We're not even close. I think that's a good thing. Yet I see some signs of stagnation, in thought and in funding.

Perhaps it's because the States lie on our border to the south. In my life, I've gone from seeing Open University in the mornings in my homeland of Scotland, to the decent smatterings of science on Access, PBS, TLC and Discovery, to the plethora of sensationalist UFO and psychic shows. There's a little bit of science left on Discovery, PBS... Access if you stay up late. Daily Planet and Nova are the only things left. Where are the Beakman's Worlds? The Bill Nyes? What am I going to have to show my children when I have them?

There are some encouraging bits and pieces, mostly in engineering and the science that supports it. We're making some real progress in spaceflight and an interest in it, thanks in part to the likes of the Mars and Saturn/Titan missions, and the push towards private spaceflight spurred on by the Ansari X Prize.

The advent of good white LEDs is starting to have a trickle effect, from things like LED Christmas lights to LED street lights. White LED projectors won't be too far behind. They are such good low-energy-per-lumen light sources that solar power can actually be used to power them.

Plasma, LCD, etc. devices are being invented and getting cheaper by the month. Finally, lifting your television set and monitors will no longer require Robaxacet to pick up.

The likes of Thermal Depolymerization sounds like the stuff of science fiction. The impact from the ability to get oil out of carbon-based waste will have some interesting impact. (Personally, I imagine a strange future side-effect from this of opposition to TD ironically praising landfills for their roles as carbon sinks)

There is some amazing potential for science that is being... blocked up.

Evolution has been through trial by fire, and come out with flying colours. It was originally based on observations of living creatures, then of fossils. DNA was unheard of for most of the duration of the theory. Yet, with seemingly little public awareness, the Human Genome project, and many other full and section-based sequencing on other creatures, have confirmed what fossils and observations have told us. Yet myths about it, exaggerations of the troubles, wilfully taken out of context quotes, are wilfully perpetuated.

Stem cell research is being held up. It's a promising technology, with some ethical questions, but the way it's practised, fewer than are being implied. The US's moratorium, while only 'technically' forbidding public funding of the research, has created a legal minefield (are college grounds, even if you pay for the facility use, 'publically funded' in some legal sense?)

I predict it's really an interim step. Once we have learned what we need to know from stem cell research, we won't need the kinds of tissues that cause so much controversy. That makes the current reactionary climate all the more hurtful.

Physics is an area that has been really, really disappointing me. Not in that they aren't doing all sorts of interesting experiments, but it has been, in some fields, 'sniffing its own behind'. There's been, in my mind, a tendency to hold the theories sacred, and the data not so much.

Nowhere is this more evident than in cosmology. This is one field where bending the data to fit the theories has been taken to a new level. What on earth has happened here? Big Bang Theory hasn't always been on top, and strangely, the major observation that gave it its strongest leg up is going to end up, in my opinion, being its downfall. Redshifts are the lynchpin of the whole industry. The fact that they are observed generally increasing with distance is hard to dispute. The interpretation that redshifts are equivalent to recessional velocities has appeal in analogy (e.g. Doppler effect), but it's the exceptions to the rule (e.g. Arp's observations), that are causing consternation.

I realize there are crackpots out there; it comes with theoretical territory. The reactions to reasonable suggestions and observations, however, is appalling. You don't find such religious institute parallels in chemistry, biology, or applied physics.

There's more food for another rant there, but I guarantee you that we'll see the downfall of the Big Bang Theory (replaced by something a lot older with slow-moving galaxies) at some point.

Quantum physics is interestingly split. There are some very cool things being discovered in quantum computing. Where math and experimentation meet, we get some very interesting things. There are so many things yet to be discovered in this field. As far as explaining what's actually behind the veil of the phenomena, nobody has the direct line to the truth on this one.

There are quantum phenomena that don't 'resolve' until they are measured, or observed. One line of reasoning that seems to be passing (at least I hope so) is the presumption that the 'observation' needs to have human consciousness behind it. One thing we've found in Nature over and over again: if it requires or places humans at the center... it's wrong. (A good, more recent example in the phenomenon of "The Fingers Of God")

I don't think String Theory is really helping the state of physics. It's an awful lot of multidimensional math for not much payback (I know it's been oversold but... well, it's been oversold!)

As a strange corollary to all of this, I would tell those of you who think that so much has been discovered that you could never contribute: it's untrue.

I hope the lower popularity of science (at least perceived) is temporary. We've lost some of our luminaries and popularizers (Sagan, whatever you think of him, is particularly missed). We've also gained a significant amount of fear in the past few years, some of it by events, much of it by design (fearmongering by some governments, undeserved media attention on terrorists). We often see retreats to comfort and mythology in such times.

I'm cautiously optimistic.

And impatient :)

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