Monday, May 25, 2015

Light Bulb Science

So many of us believe that a light bulb will go off in a brilliant mind, and a new technology will change the world as of that moment. Does it happen? Almost never. Maybe a light bulb after a whole lot of effort, but “just like that?”… literally, almost never. Maybe in ancient days, with a wheel (which may have evolved from using logs to roll big stuff anyway) or fire, but in the modern world, scientific discovery is normally a long, slow process, following paths that become dead-ends, occasionally letting serendipity change the goal to a different discovery, turning back and doing it again. Creating a theory, seeking evidence, verifying the interpretation, and so-on and so-on. Time, effort and thought, sometimes over years, even a professional lifetime.
But in a world of instant response, instant gratification, and even instant solutions voted on by elected officials with a two-year term to get it right, the value of that sustained effort is no longer cherished. Think of the massive informational assault that defines the life experience of Millennials and the Z generation. A February 29, 2012 Pew Research Center report summarizes various views of the changes: “Hyperconnected. Always on. These terms have been invented to describe the environment created when people are linked continuously through tech devices to other humans and to global intelligence. Teens and young adults have been at the forefront of the rapid adoption of the mobile internet and the always-on lifestyle it has made possible…
“Morley Winograd, author of Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America, echoed the keyword-tagging idea. ‘Millennials are using packet-switching technology rather than hard-wired circuit switching to absorb information,’ he responded. ‘They take a quick glance at it and sort it and/or tag it for future reference if it might be of interest.’
“Cathy Cavanaugh, an associate professor of educational technology at the University of Florida, noted, ‘Throughout human history, human brains have elastically responded to changes in environments, society, and technology by ‘rewiring’ themselves. This is an evolutionary advantage and a way that human brains are suited to function.’” But can these rewired brains, living in an instant-solution society, engage in the tedious (often with no clear end in sight) efforts of sustained scientific research, and, even more importantly, will the “light bulb” society around them value such efforts enough to provide financial support to fund this needed longer-term, sustained research?
“Alvaro Retana, a distinguished technologist with Hewlett-Packard, expressed concerns about humans’ future ability to tackle complex challenges. ‘The short attention spans resulting from the quick interactions will be detrimental to focusing on the harder problems, and we will probably see a stagnation in many areas: technology, even social venues such as literature,’ he predicted. ‘The people who will strive and lead the charge will be the ones able to disconnect themselves to focus on specific problems.’
“[Perhaps deep thinking will become collaborative]. Marjory S. Blumenthal, associate provost at Georgetown University and former director of the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Academies, agreed. ‘Perhaps the issue is, how will deep thinking get done—including by whom—rather than will everyone be able to do deep thinking. In other words, division of labor may change.’” Pew Report.
We’ve even gone so far as to create a mythology on how great ideas of the past were instantaneous to fit our modern perceptions of light bulb science. Writing an Op-Ed for the New York Times (May 15th), author-physicist Leonard Mlodinow provides an example from his own experience: “The other week I was working in my garage office when my 14-year-old daughter, Olivia, came in to tell me about Charles Darwin. Did I know that he discovered the theory of evolution after studying finches on the Gal├ípagos Islands? I was steeped in what felt like the 37th draft of my new book, which is on the development of scientific ideas, and she was proud to contribute this tidbit of history that she had just learned in class.
“Sadly, like many stories of scientific discovery, that commonly recounted tale, repeated in her biology textbook, is not true… The popular history of science is full of such falsehoods. In the case of evolution, Darwin was a much better geologist than ornithologist, at least in his early years. And while he did notice differences among the birds (and tortoises) on the different islands, he didn’t think them important enough to make a careful analysis. His ideas on evolution did not come from the mythical Gal├ípagos epiphany, but evolved through many years of hard work, long after he had returned from the voyage. (To get an idea of the effort involved in developing his theory, consider this: One byproduct of his research was a 684-page monograph on barnacles.)
“The myth of the finches obscures the qualities that were really responsible for Darwin’s success: the grit to formulate his theory and gather evidence for it; the creativity to seek signs of evolution in existing animals, rather than, as others did, in the fossil record; and the open-mindedness to drop his belief in creationism when the evidence against it piled up.”
The problem is that long-term efforts needed in complex scientific research – the kind of job-creating, economy-stimulating big picture efforts that change the world – need government or massive non-profit (usually academic) support. But our press for austerity in everything except military spending has ripped and torn away at government and academic programs that sustain such research, shifting the primary research and development efforts to private enterprise. Yet the private sector generally works on a three to five-year time line, does not support serendipity into tangential discoveries, and is very quick to pull the plug when targeted commercial results are not timely met. We are killing our future by not letting government invest in it, and an impatient constituency no longer seems to cherish paying to solve problems or funding pure research that require too much time. Catch-22. Our global competitors are watching and smacking their lips at our folly.

 I’m Peter Dekom; we have met the enemy, and he is us!

No comments: