This guest column is in response to the recently published To Find New Innovations, Stop Researching the Same Old Stuff by Bloomberg's Noah Smith.
My wife is a research scientist and over the years I've learned you can't just run around saying things are science and filling in the rest with assumptions and magic; that's Aristotelian philosophy and it's still dragging us all down. Contemporary science is founded on the philosophy Descartes laid out as the scientific method: a systematic way to record and communicate structured observations of the natural world without having to introduce a supernatural element and to ensure everyone is on the same page.
What that means in relation to this article, in part, is that you can't go off and study whatever you want if you want it to be science. It has to be built on something already established as science. You can build on it or falsify it, but it has to be out there already. That means more resources will be required in proportion to advancement in any given field because the corpus of knowledge is ever growing and adding to it becomes ever more difficult.
That same fact should make it obvious why universe bending discoveries are rare. Let's use simple relativity for the example. E=MC² is the culmination of thousands of years of study and refinement. Trying to understand why a bigger rock squashes someone better than a smaller one was an ancient question before the Egyptians were stacking blocks in fun and exciting shapes. When things are really basic you can get by with basic answers (big rock weighs more). However, when you start asking why the squashing power of the smaller rock is the same as the bigger rock if dropped from a higher place, it's more complicated. When you figure out that the rocks fall at the same speed regardless of size and altitude, everything goes to hell and they just set you on fire because it's cheaper than building a tower tall enough to confirm your hypothesis.
But eventually somebody comes along and says "holy s***, there's a correlation here" and turns millennia of study into E=MC². Without all those dropped rocks and the increasingly tall towers Einstein would have had to do all himself. He'd have had nothing to work with. It's worth pointing out that, just like Einstein, we estimate the speed of light and mass to define the variables in his equation. These get more accurate every day, (MIRV's), but they're still estimates. We have the ability to destroy the entire planet with estimates, and I've just read an article arguing against taller towers and better estimates.
What's next? Should we have just immolated Einstein and Leo Szilárd for their letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt to build a tower tall enough to validate the hypothetical weaponization of fission? Because it was an experiment you know. Success was far from certain, but because it was all built on established scientific theories built on theories built on theories built on theories that each required a taller tower a huge chunk of the resources of several nations were tasked with testing the hypothesis of weaponized fission.
Individuals riding out on gut feeling to exploit natural phenomena is a terrible idea for any national science policy. A lot of money is already spent on wonky research, but there's at least a basis for it. Imagine a world where some government agency gave Leonardo da Vinci a bunch of money to actualize the stuff he dreamed up. We'd all be living in a real-world version of a Hieronymus Bosch painting as half-assed ideas were no longer trapped in a 14th-Century TrapperKeeper.
No scientific discoveries are built on vague assumptions and ideas. There are no "Eureka" moments where mysteries of the universe are suddenly laid bare in someone's mind who had not already been pondering those mysteries. Science is a plodding thing where history is made sporadically with decades, centuries and entire epochs passing between discoveries. We are living in an age where every single person living has witnessed at least two world changing scientific discoveries they can name. The reality is that every single person living has dozens of world changing scientific discoveries in every aspect of their life, they just don't know it.
Science is going faster and further than ever before. Hobbling that by having people run wild with ideas based on nothing is wrong in every sense of the word. Aristotle and Bacon served their purpose and each made significant contributions to the modern philosophy of science, but their time is over and science continues and discoveries abound. If anything we need to re-examine a lot more than we do now.
As a nation we are marching towards the first real outside challenge to our leadership role in manufacturing and innovation. Cost cutting and automation will let us hold our ground, for a while, but a siege mentality is no way to win anything. Everything from quantum computing, materials development, AI and even advanced process development begins in high tech, government and NGO research facilities. The discoveries made in those facilities are what we turn into competitive advantages and exciting new products. Private sector companies don’t make the investments in R&D at this level. . They are the beneficiaries of big scientific research and in the coming years we’ll be deciding if we want to reap those benefits or wither away. We must encourage lawmakers and policy makers to not just maintain funding for scientific research, they have to increase funding for research or we will lose our leadership role in science and industry.
I say science needs bigger accelerators, bigger telescopes, bigger lasers, bigger furnaces, bigger computers, bigger budgets and bigger beers.
Jesse Z. Melton is a process consultant focusing on machine and workholding design and development with over 20 years of engineered design experience. He is an advocate of aggressive investment in scientific research by governments and NGOs. He can be reached at [email protected].