Posts Tagged Science

Nobel Prizes and Consensus – Updated

So much for the idea that science operates by consensus.  If it did, Dan Schechtman would still be working in obscurity, rather than having just been named the 2011 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry.

Schechtman won for discovering something called quasicrystals (the article is a little technical).  We all think we know what crystals look like: solid forms that are not only symmetrical, but that also repeat endlessly.  Schechtman discovered crystal structures that are symmetrical, but have patterns that don’t repeat – ever – when they’re put next to each other.  It’s a three-dimensional analogue to Penrose Tiling, where the pattern is symmetrical about the center (in this case, it repeats 5 times), but never repeats as you move outward.

The world of crystallography didn’t receive Schechtman’s discovery with open arms:

“People didn’t think that this kind of crystal existed,” she said. “They thought it was against the rules of nature.”

“I told everyone who was ready to listen that I had material with pentagonal symmetry. People just laughed at me,” Shechtman said in a description of his work released by his university.

For months he tried to persuade his colleagues of his find, but they refused to accept it. Finally he was asked to leave his research group, and moved to another one within the institute.

Shechtman returned to Israel, where he found one colleague prepared to work with him on an article describing the phenomenon. The article was at first rejected, but finally published in November 1984 — to uproar in the scientific world. Double Nobel winner Linus Pauling was among those who never accepted the findings.

“He would stand on those platforms and declare, ‘Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense. There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists,”’ Shechtman said.

Schechtman encountered fierce resistance to a laboratory discovery, and was rightly forced to go through the scientific process of debate, discussion, and reproducible experiment.  Computer models showing that such shapes were possible wouldn’t have been enough.  Making the lab measurements wouldn’t have been enough.  Making the crystals in once wouldn’t have been enough.  Explaining other scientists’ data wouldn’t have been enough.  Only when he was able to use his discovery to make useful predictions was it enough for us.  (The article says that the discovery took place on April 8, 1982, which corresponds to the first day of Passover that year.  Insiders will understand the structure of this paragraph.)

Climate orthodoxy considers itself bound by almost none of these constraints, and seeks to operate by consensus.  Science can be as susceptible to groupthink as any other pursuit.  It’s only the rigor of repeatable, predictive, real-world experimentation that keeps it grounded and validates its conclusions.

UPDATE: The official Nobel Prize press release recognizes Schechtman’s, “fierce battle against established science.”  Imagine that.

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What Does Technology Want?

First, take about half an hour and listen to the following RadioLab podcast.  Go ahead, I’ll wait; the comments won’t make sense without it, and I don’t want to have to set up the whole thing, piece by piece, before commenting.

It’s an interesting question, then.  Does technology have to have advanced more or less in the way that it did?  Or could certain things have been invented sooner, or later?  Did we have to get the railroad about the same time as the telegraph?  Did we have to wait for the automobile until well after the telephone?  The authors would seem to say yes.

Why do things get invented?  Because all the necessary technologies have been invented, they answer.  It’s like a chess game, where you can only make certain moves once the board’s in a certain position, i.e., once the moves needed to get there have been made.

I’m not so sure.  There’s a point, somewhere in the mid-to-late 1800s, stretching until the 1920s or so, when things seem to get invented at such a rapid pace that it’s hard to believe that the order was pre-ordained, that there weren’t just so many potential useful inventions out there waiting to be invented, that they didn’t overwhelm the number of inventors at least a little bit.  If that’s so, then technology advances at least as much because people are looking in a certain place, as much as that the tools for inventing it were around.

Take the space program.  There’s no reason to believe that the tools for a civilian space program weren’t lying around in 1960.  What was lacking was the belief that anyone other than the government could make it happen.  Or so-called “green energy.”  As much as we’re subsidizing its development, there’s no reason to think there won’t be some breakthroughs there, but we’ll never know the opportunity cost of those breakthroughs.  Suppose we just built a bunch of nuclear power plants, and all those inventors had to go to work on household appliances or nanotechnology instead?

Another fascinating notion, tantalizingly cut short in the radio piece, is the notion that technological evolution seems to be an extension of the evolutionary processes that produced us.  As a believer who also believes in human evolution, that was a bit jarring at first.  No doubt, some materialists would choose to believe that it obviates the need for a creator.  But this, like all Ideas, is self-proving.  To a believer, it’s perfectly reasonable that if we’re created in God’s image, then our intelligence is a reflection of His.  The authors can’t quite being themselves to say that.

The notion that our networks will self-actualize at some point isn’t a new idea; science fiction authors have been playing with it for years, and they generally aren’t as sanguine as the two authors are.  I remember reading an Asimov story where the telephone network gains consciousness, and SkyNet is another example.

Towards the end, I think they read Krulwich’s unease incorrectly.  There’s something at least unsettling about the idea that we’re just midwives for other intelligences, that we’re not the logical end of evolution, but just another link in the chain.  Because if we are, then the intelligence that we’re creating may eventually decide we’re more trouble than we’re worth.  Krulwich isn’t, as one author states, worried about next Tuesday.  He really is worried about the next 10,000 years.

The risk, I believe, comes in taking them too literally.  I don’t really believe that the Internet will gain consciousness someday.  I do believe that the idea of man-and-his technology as an organism is useful as a metaphor for understanding what’s going on.  In an earlier edition, RadioLab accepts the metaphor that a city breathes energy in and out.  (But if they know that’s a metaphor, why do they so easily accept the Technology metaphor as real?)

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