Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Looking Forward

Since I’m working on NaNoWriMo, I’m afraid I’m going to be confined to riffing off of CW’s posts for a while, because between work, the novel, guests, and schoolwork (not mine) my creative juices are about tapped out, not to mention my time.

But CW’s last post did get me to thinking about Cosmos. Carl Sagan inspired me to look into fundamental science as a career when I was about 10. Don’t get me wrong, the fact that my father was a meteorologist and my mother was a grade school teacher pretty much sealed my fate in a technical career when I was born (by temperament, not by their urging – I can not remember a time when they said “you ought to do this or that”, ever – but then I never talked about majoring in literature, either). But the pre-teen naturally begins to look past the parents for role models, and Sagan provided a broader canvas on which I could paint my dreams.

In high school, the large brushes of childhood were replaced by the fine drawing instruments of adulthood, and the canvas began to look like something real. My high school chemistry teacher channeled my energy into the exact branch of science I was to follow into graduate school – Physical Chemistry.

So, having completed my training in the late 90s, I came back home to the house I grew up in and chanced upon the companion book to Cosmos, sitting up in the attic. I re-read it with the critical eye that had seen Sagan crash and burn through his Nuclear Winter to Nuclear Autumn backpedaling, on into his hugely improvident predictions of environmental disaster from Gulf War I. Sagan is an object lesson in avoiding the personality cult in science, and in the need to doubly scrutinize what public science figures say when they are talking outside of their field of expertise. But Sagan was always big enough to admit his errors of fact, if not his errors of public persuasion, or the emotional drivers that led him to cherry pick his models and violate Feynman’s directive to try to poke holes at one’s own theories.

So I still read Sagan with interest. In re-reading Cosmos, I came to the passage criticizing Star Trek. Now, I am second to none in being quick to point out that Star Dreck is not real science fiction, being as I am an aficionado of Hard SF. Hell, I enjoy a good Spider Robinson story more than a “Kirk Does the Green Alien Chick” story, and Spider sure as hell ain’t hard SF. But Sagan’s particular criticism was yet another example of a very smart guy talking out of his posterior orifice because no one around him told him he was full of it. And, in my usual wandering style, I have some to the point of the post, and the connection to CW’s.

Sagan’s criticism was that the likelihood of two alien races meeting each other at the same level of technology is so small as to be infinitesimal, and that the more advanced race, if warlike, would quickly conquer the more backward one.

The problem with this is that Sagan modeled his technological progress on a smooth function. It doesn’t matter if one takes a linear or non-linear approach to modeling technological progress, I think it is a form of temporal bigotry borne of living in the 20th century that would lead one to look at the pace of technological progress as anything other than a series of step functions, or more accurately, a series of sigmoidal curves.

Technology is based on physical phenomena. Another great physicist who liked to talk out of his posterior orifice, Ernest Rutherford, once famously said that all science was either physics or stamp collecting. Stamp collecting is highly underrated by people who work on mathematical models all day. Without careful observations of physical phenomena, theory would be so much mathematical masturbation. And technology does not progress in the long term without the discovery of new physical phenomena.

As CW and I have noted before, the pace of fundamental progress in the physical sciences seems to have slowed in since the 1930s. The main advances since the 1930s have been in biology, which has taken the fruits of the gains of quantum mechanics and applied them to living systems. What the latter half of the 20th century has been in terms of technological progress, is using the gains of the past 150 years to do exciting things, such as going to the moon, or making computer networks. Neither of those relied on much new science, however. What they mostly relied on was wealth – having the infrastructure available to afford such luxuries.

For example, computers could have been networked in an “Internet” of sorts back in the 1960s, with terminals spread out to at least public libraries. The expense was too great, and attachment to information in books too great, so that the Internet needed to wait, not just until the invention of the PC, but until people got comfortable enough with the PC to have enough of them to cheaply network.

The pace of change in the modern world still seems to be accelerating, but that is because the pace of discovery in the past did not allow the human race to catch up to all of the implications of the previous discoveries. Some new technologies will come of nanotechnology – but not as many as people expect (I hold nanotechnology patents, I know what I’m talking about, here), just as the Human Genome project hss not yielded the results that HGSI was promising in the middle of the tech bubble. These things take time to work out.

We are now approaching the flat part of a step, or more accurately, we are at the second inflection point of the sigmoidal curve that makes up our step. Progress will still be made - the first derivative is still positive, but the second derivative is now decreasing, not increasing. And that is what is wrong with Sagan’s picture of the progress of technology. Once a race has mined and exploited all of the physical phenomena that are there to be discovered in their corner of the Universe, the flat part of the step will cover a long, long time indeed.

It may be that a race will need to get close to quasars, or black holes, or objects yet undiscovered, in order to observe a phenomenon that lends itself to revolutionary technology such as the one at the NP junction that led to all the stuff I’m using to communicate with you right now. I think that the probability of two races meeting while on the flat part of a curve is much, much greater than what Sagan expected.

The trick, the duty, of a race living in the “flat time” is to inculcate the kind of love of discovery that will allow that race to take advantage of new observations when and if they are made, and not dismiss the new science and technology as too disruptive. If humans are any example (and I think we are – fundamental evolutionary processes, even on silicon or germanium based life forms, will not be much different if something sentient is to evolve on another world), then sentient beings tend to get fat, dumb, happy, and conservative when not pushed by their environment to learn and grow.

I think what worries CW and I is that we see signs of a waning in the will to explore. Even if space colonization is economically unfeasible right now, the desire to do what we can do has been lost in NASA bureaucracy. Books about space exploration abounded when I was in elementary school. Now they are lost in a sea of Dora the Explorer. And she's exploring what exactly? I now look to the private sector to rekindle the sense of promise I felt as a kid looking at the plans for the Shuttle. Little did I know at that young age that the Shuttle itself represented a lowering of expectations. You can also see those lowered expectations in peripheral things, such as our literature and architecture. We have become, in many ways, a smaller people.

I’ve seen a lot of idiots talking recently about the cost of the LHC – yet that is the one great hope we have right now of discovering something new that might re-ignite the sense of progress of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mind you, I don’t think it will any time soon, but it might. That is worth a lot of coin of the realm to attempt to capture. And so I come to a final, political musing. Like the Coalition, I am determined to make Obama my president, too. The brightest spot I see (not the only bright spot, just the brightest) is his commitment to science. Let’s all push forward on that frontier, and rekindle the imaginations of our children.

16 comments:

Anne C. said...

This is an extention of my reply to your comment on the other post:

It seems to me from your comments there and this post, that you value space exploration. What about exploration of the sea? Or of the human body? There are a heck of a lot of unanswered questions about why the body works as it does.
So, let's generalize and say you value technological advancement, like the Internet.

What about social advancement? Space exploration gave us a world that was a fragile ball that included all of us. The internet gave us instant gratification and unfiltered connectivity across the world. These things affect us as social animals, don't they? Globalization of markets is a direct product of the easier communication across continents and timezones. Globalization highlights the interconnectivity of the nations (China used to be a threat through weapons, now it is through commerce). All of these are products of the Internet.

We have been developing as a species over thousands of years and now a 20-30 year slump (since the inception of the personal computer, which despite the sneering of a certain applied mathematician I met once, really did change the world) is the end of science?

It seems to me that development is like a sine curve. Sometimes it's up in the technological zone and sometimes down in the social zone, but both are necessary. I'm sure there are plenty of distopia novels about societies that failed to incorporate their learning.

I know that you won't agree, and that's fine, but I'm not going to hop on board the Scientific Apocalypse ride just because we're not in space. It's the equivalent of the parents who spend all their time at work because they value money while their kids turn into selfish monsters with no parenting. (Not saying that's you, I'm saying you put all your value in one spot.)
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Ironically, the captcha is "vista"

CW said...

Another thing I forgot to bring up in my last post: The LHC is a great example of the kind of thing we need a lot more of, if we are to break through the plateau in technological advancement. Whatever it is, that next fundamental discovery that changes the world (like the NP Junction), it will probably come from the frontiers of physics. If physics doesn't have those frontiers, we're hosed.

Konstantin said...

Nanotechnology is not really new technology, it a logical step towards minituarization of computing power.

The same way that computers in the 60's could have been networked. I personally expect desktops to completely disappear in 5-6 years.

Internal Combustion Engines have not changed in 100 years.

I think we are stalled, and need a completely new direction.

I am sorry, I forgot what I was going to say.

Oh, I think that Anne is right about something. Human body has huge potential, maybe the next step needs to be not technological but evolutional.

John the Scientist said...

No, Anne, I think you miss my point. This has nothing to do with space per se. It has to do with the tools we use to explore the world around us in all the sciences. Pretty much every instrument I used in graduate school would have been recognizable, except for the computer interface, to a scientist of the 1940s. Every instrument he would have used would not have been recognizable to a scientist of the 1890s. That is what CW and I mean about the slowing of progress. It's not a bad thing, or a good thing, at the moment, it just is. Where it starts to become bad is when the funding agencies accept that as status quo and lose their willingness to take risks on big projects that might change that state of affairs.

I'm not sure what your point is about biology. The human body is being explored. Biology is a huge chunk of NSF funding, and pretty much all of NIH - it's in no danger of being shortchanged. As a matter of fact, I could argue that's the one avenue that is always going to find funding. From the days of the alchemists, one of the drivers of scientific innovation has been the desire of many to live forever, and the desire of the rest to live longer, healthier lives.

The reason that physics is better developed than biology is not because funding wavered, it was because biology needed the tools that physics and chemistry developed in order to go beyond where it hit the flat part of the S curve in the 1930s. It stayed pretty stagnant until X-ray crystallography and modern QM gave us the tools to elucidate the nature of DNA. Biology is now, I'd say, the most productive of the 3 main sciences. Much of what we're learning now is not because or tools got better in the last 20 years (although they did, but much of today's advances could have been made with the tools of 20 years ago), it's because the body is a mass of feedback and feedforward loops that don't lend themselves to study by simple isolation of variables. In that sense, physics is simpler than biology, though it uses more complex math. Right now, biology necessarily has to depend on incremental advances in understanding as we slowly take those dynamic systems apart and see how they work. And that is going to happen because people have a need, an immediate need, to know.

I think the social sciences are still in their infancy, and they need quite a bit more tools form neurobiology before they will have any useful predictive power, just as biology was descriptive until we really started to observe what's going on inside the cell. Throwing more money at htem right now would be a huge waste of resources. Quite frankly, most of the social science I've seen is junk, such as Noam Chomsky's "generative grammar", the idiocy of which has hindered the science of linguistics for a good 30 years. Neurobiology is finally starting to give his opponents some traction, (although as a speaker of a non SVO language, I saw the flaws in his logic a long, long time ago, but science is subject to fads just as is any other human endeavor).

I'm not particularly worried about science fading away, as you seem to think. There are plenty of unexplored avenues to keep us busy for a while, and the decline in the pace of discovery of fundamental phenomena is a natural, cyclical thing (there is more than one step in the function, in other words).

What I worry about is that with the decline of the spirit of exploration comes the shortening of our mental horizons, as evidenced by the "why spend so much money on space or the LHC?" questions. Why? As I mentioned, biology and social stuff is a)always going to get funding and b)at this point in our technological development, does not need a huge investment to yield dividends.

I'm not even talking human habitation here, although in many ways space is a less harsh environment for humans than is the bottom of the ocean.

But if we are going to leap to the next level, we need to observe some fundamental new physical phenomena, and exploring the sea just ain't going to give us that.
The LHC and space exploration will.

Without a sense of urgency, we'll keep putting those explorations off to look at more "practical" things, forgetting that something as ubiquitous as the Fourier transform was developed to study heat conduction. That was hardly a pressing problem in Post-Revolutionary France. Hell, The Jacobins could have done with a huge dose of social science theory, but the world just had not accrued the methods or enough empirical observation to do anything about that - sending Fourier off to study social dynamics would have made the social sciences slightly richer and physics (and ultimately chemistry and biology) much poorer.

To your other point, out of today's social science research, I'm not sure what major insights could be gained that would help us deal with the connectivity of the Internet. Nothing like this has happened before, and the social sciences are still in their "Stamp collecting" phase. Our own UCF is an evolutionary step that most sociologists would be studying, not giving advice on. Our little unique bozo filter will be studied at some future date, I'm betting.

The drive to explore (and the competition with the Russians) drove us to develop so much that shapes our modern world. And at this point in development, those big projects cost a lot of money. Without the sense of purpose that Kennedy gave the space program, we have become dilettantes, and that does not generate results.

Anne C. said...

I brought up biology because it is a field of study not mentioned by you or CW. No meaning attached to that, more of an observation. Nice to know you don't think we're completely stagnated there.

And I don't know that social science will ever get out of the stamp collecting phase, though I do know that some people find incredible help from therapists and chemical adjustment. What I was referring to was the development and incorporation of technology into the way society behaves. For example, MWT is a student of human behavior and has learned a lot, particularly about internet based groups. By sharing this information with us, MWT has not only enlarged our own understanding, which modifies how we interact with others. These developments, such as interconnectivity and globalization are not guided by experts, just as exploration has no real experts. You just have adventurous (and hopefully well-prepared) people trying something new. Kinda like us!

I understand where you're coming from and yes, there's a skepticism about the future that is reflected in the dark sci-fi we see today (BSG, for example). Because of the worldwide economic issues, I'm not sure who is going to fund your inspirational projects, but I'm all for them myself.

(You say, "I'm not particularly worried about science fading away, as you seem to think." I am just responding to a post called "the future sucks" and one that includes the phrase "I think what worries CW and I..." Obviously, I misunderstood the degree of your concern.)

John the Scientist said...

Well, CW's point about "the future sucks" is that the dystopian futures (AI, Wall-E) seem to have more traction than the more normal ones in society right now. And part of that is because people don't get excited about hard drives going from 500 GB to 1 TB, although that is a huge advance. One aspect of the problem is that there no big gateway drugs in science to get kids into the hard stuff (I got sucked in by space, and stayed for the nanotech).

And I don't agree that Art Deco meant nothing. It meant that the people who built those buildings had a view to the future. The whole movement emphasized speed and progress. Now as far as human / architectural interface, yes, Art Deco meant nothing. But to get people to invest in a building long term, it has to have some meaning to them, beyond a transactional relationship.

I'd like to see a little translucent concrete every once in a while (though I could see where that could get old, fast), because you won't get any traction into seeing buildings as non-throwaway objects unless they are exciting to be in. The Chrysler building still excites me every time I'm on 42nd Street. The rest of 42nd street? Not so much.

I used to attend lectures at a private University just down the street from the public one where I got my Ph.D. Their main lecture hall was beautiful - beautiful wood paneling and seats, built in the 20s or 30s.

Our lecture hall was in a glass and steel monstrosity of a building with plastic everywhere. No one will lament its destruction, but they would actively try to prevent the loss of the other building.

We lost something in our rush to modernity, and now that the pace of change is slowing, we can begin to get a feel for what we lost, and maybe try to recapture it.

John the Scientist said...

"Because of the worldwide economic issues, I'm not sure who is going to fund your inspirational projects, but I'm all for them myself."

This is my fear. This is why I'm a conservative. We do have the resources. We need to get our priorities straight. In 2017, there is going to be one retired person for every two working people. We can't fund that at current levels and do much of anything else. Seniors who don't need Social Security need to pony up and admit that it's a wealth redistribution program. We don't need to give tax "breaks" to people who don't pay taxes.

It was always a truism that in good times, it was better to be a janitor in a Japanese firm than an American one because of job security. In hard times, the American janitor had a very real chance of getting a pink slip. On the other hand, a janitor was never going to be more than a janitor in Japan, whereas the US firm often made opportunities for its people to go back to school. As a matter of fact, there are a few researchers at my firm who started out as janitors in the 60s.

Why should we worry about the janitors of the world (once they have the basics, of course) and shortchange our kids (and theirs)? We need to make a world where if they want to they can go to school or in some other way better themselves, but I'm not particularly worried about improving their lot if they aren't.

Bailing out people who made stupid decisions about their finances? Nope. This is why Palin pissed me off so badly in the debate - it's not just "predatory" lenders, it's greedy buyers who share some of this blame, and prioritizing this bailout in such a rapid manner was a mistake, and will have consequences down the line in what we choose to fund, as Jim pointed out.

The function of government is not to redistribute wealth now, it is to fund projects that will create more wealth in the future - projects so big or so long term that the private sector can't handle them.

Anne C. said...

I realized I got diverted from CWs original statement.

The reason I disagree with you on Art Deco is because it is a style. It can be done badly or it can be done well. The value of a building is how it performs for its users. There are some fundamentals about design that are universal (or rather, so encoded in human culture as to be universal). Style preferences are also subjective. Some people like modern and some like traditional. Just because a building is done in a particular style does not guarantee it's superiority. Which is why I always come back to the fundamental -- does it perform? A great looking car is just another piece of furniture if you can't get it to run.

The other thing about style is that it gets dated fast. My boss was really worried about the design of my building because it [gasp] has a curved roof. In this day and age of having the newest and coolest technology, it can be death to have an older looking building. (Our office is actually in a renovated mansion, so this is not always the case.) This is another matter of taste.

Ultimately, I'm never going to agree that applied style should take precedence over function or design fundamentals, so we'll have to agree to disagree.

Similarly, I'm not going to discuss politicized economics with you. I have a lot in common with old fashioned conservatives and I find it laughable that political conservatives these days still claim that they believe in small government and low taxes. Looking at the last decade or so, you can see where they like to spend our money.
I doubt you agree and so doubt we have any common ground on this point.

John the Scientist said...

Anne, I'm not sure where you got the idea that CW or I are Republicans apologists. We're both small "l" libertarians, and neither one of us is happy with the GOP and its spending since Bush I.

The problem with this election was the normal one, multiplied by several fold: politics is deciding which bucket of buzzard puke to drink from. The reason I slide over to the conservative side of the aisle once I get a look at the Ayn Rand fan club which is the modern Libertarian Party (I flirt with voting that way every election) is that the entitlement programs so favored by the left never go away (well, almost never, it took 40 years to get Welfare reform) and they tend to grow.

Vince had a nice post up when McCain announced he was cutting the budget. There ain't a whole lot of discretionary spending in there. The bulk is SS and Medicare.

You know what a I do for a living, and part of my job is keeping an eye on demographic trends. I'm not kidding when I say that something is going to give around or about 2020. I've run the numbers, and they ain't pretty. I'm willing to give up my stake in SS, and spend that money to keep the people who cleaned my restrooms from eating dog food in their old age. Where is that spirit of sacrifice from the Boomers? I don't see it.

Back to the style question, there has to be some style. You know the arguments I've had with Eric about the aesthetic versus the functional over on the forum. I take as a given that the human / architectural interfaces are well designed, otherwise, no one is arguing that the building's junk. That lecture hall I used to go to on the other campus had great viewing and great acoustics, otherwise, I'd have been irritated, not inspired, by the woodwork.

But that function is not enough. There has to be some form, somewhere, once the interface is well designed. I used to work in an office in a converted warehouse, and that was grim. I'm not terribly happy about the office I work in now, because the interface is not optimal - the tower is roughly square, and the main corridor heads into the diagonal of the square and branches out like a tree - it's highly confusing, and visitors get lost all the time. Despite that, it does have some redeeming aesthetic features, and I prefer it to the more traditional grid-hallway design of the other building.

The throw away aesthetic of modern architecture, which I think you don't like much either, is indicative of what the modern world let happen. We put the bean counters and not the visionaries in control.

Mr. Bingley said...

I would quibble with this-

Well, CW's point about "the future sucks" is that the dystopian futures (AI, Wall-E) seem to have more traction than the more normal ones in society right now.

but I'm too busy playing Fallout 3.

Eric said...

I think it can be very difficult to recognize whether you're living in a plateau or a slope when you're in the middle of it. Maybe you're right, John--or maybe a historian a century from now will be regarding this as part of a single block of time.

Nor do I think it says anything that dystopian fantasies are popular. Dystopian fantasies have always been popular, or at least popular going as far back as H.G. Wells. The fact that Hugo Gernsback and John Campbell had a major thing for "gee whiz" science fiction and left a major stamp on what was salable SF for roughly a fifty-year chunk shouldn't be seen as meaning too much: literature (and it's derivatives, such as TV and film) has always been concerned with fear as much as hope, and I think Campbell's brand of SF was more of an aberration than anything. (Hell, even "optimistic" writers like Asimov and technocrats like Clarke have their shares of dysfunctional and dystopian societies; c.f. Asimov's Foundation series, for instance.)

(I'd note that Heinlein wrote a good bit of optimistic, technophiliac SF for two reasons: (1) he was consciously trying to inspire youth in much the same way, for example, that C.S. Lewis was trying to inspire younger readers with the Narnia books, and (2) Heinlein was a smart writer, and one of the chief people he wrote for was (drum roll) John Campbell, who was more likely to buy certain kinds of stories than others.)

It might be added that there's also a very practical reason for the popularity of dystopias over the past century-or-so: plot almost necessarily involves conflict, and dystopias come pre-packaged with their conflicts. A story about a man who faces a mundane problem and solves it with readily-available technology might be moderately interesting if written moderately well, while a story about a man struggling against a nightmarish and broken world using whatever he can cobble together is almost automatically engaging even if written moderately poorly.

And it's not just the reader's point of view. To the extent I can call myself a writer, I have to say I'd rather write a dystopia than a utopia, not because of a failure of optimism or a mistrust of technology or humanity, but simply because the conflicts dystopias present are either simpler or more complicated or both. That is, they're simpler in that they can provide an engine for the story: something like "protagonist needs food" or "protagonist is hunted by polizi" can make for excellent McGuffins. And they're more complicated in that they can give you a chance to try to ask something meaningful about people--what does it mean to be free, what are the limits of altruism, does love really conquer all, etc.

Sorry, not trying to hijack the thread. I just wanted to say I think you've read too much into the dystopia thing.

John the Scientist said...

Eric- maybe I am reading too much into the dystopias, because I'm on the inside of science watching the slowdown, and I lament that I was not born into the time, in the late, great Paul Dirac's words, where a second rate scientist (me) could do first rate work.

As a writer, I'm not happy with dystopias because their conflicts are pre-packaged. Heinlein's genius, such as it was, was to write about societies and organizations in crisis. That's different from a dystopia, and my own current opus is about competent and incompetent people handling crisis.

While dystopia had been around, what CW and I see is that the elites buy more into dystopia than int he past. If that balance was about 70 /30 in the past (optimistic to pessimistic), it's about 50 / 50 now.

Your hijacks are always welcome, Eric.

Anne C. said...

You are right, John, that there has to be some style. My point was that you did not seem to be evaluating the two buildings solely on their style. You didn't say that your school's building was a steel and glass monstrosity that had terrible acoustics and the got super hot on the south side of the building in the winter. You just said it was a steel and glass monstrosity.
Style is something applied later, after all the functions have been worked out. It does not, in my opinion make or break a building. It adds to the beauty of the world if it's done well, or takes away from it if done badly, but no one style is *always* beautiful.

The other issue is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You are inspired by Art Deco, but there are others who find it too modern and too stripped down, too stark. And there are still others who think it's pretentious and gaudy and all that applique is not "honest." So, there will never be universal agreement on a style. (I was going to say that there can be agreement on the function of a building, but honestly, there are going to be people who want to nitpick that too.)

I guess, in the long run, if you choose to evaluate a building based on its style, acknowledge that it is a subjective judgement and therefore likely to be disagreed with. For example, I like Art Deco well enough if it's not too much like applique (like a lady with too much jewelry on), but I prefer a well done Craftsman style, which highlights the construction of the details. That, in a well-proportioned and well-functioning building, inspires *me*.

Anne C. said...

Ooops, I meant "My point was that you seemed to be evaluating the two buildings solely on their style."

John the Scientist said...

Yeah, the acoustics did suck in our building - and that is part of what goes into my dislike of the modern buildings I've been in, both style and function seem to have been sacrificed for cost - which I see as lack of vision.

Anne C. said...

On that, I most definitely agree.

And in a way, it shows the short-sightedness that originated this discussion. Way to bring the conversation full circle! :)