MIND MELD: Interesting Areas of Scientific Research
For many of us, one of the main interests of science fiction is it’s use of science as part of the story. There’s nothing quite like reading about a cool idea that is based on current scientific thought and then going back and finding out more. We asked our respondents this question:
There are several reasons for this. The first is that our system of education needs to have a scientific basis. It does not now. It is so dreadful because it was created to ready immigrant children for factory work. Be on time, follow directions, don’t talk, do what we tell you to do. One obvious negative outcome is that we do not begin to teach reading until children are far older than the optimal age for doing so. I taught preschoolers for fifteen years, and all of my four-year-olds could read with comprehension and with joy. Easily. No pain. Same with numeracy. There is no reason why they can’t grasp addition, multiplication, and subtraction by age four, and division by five.
This is because the young child’s brain is extremely plastic is ready to respond to various aspects of the environment at very specific stages of development. But the same thing is true through the early twenties; the entire educational system needs to be revamped in order to afford children the opportunity to contribute in meaningful ways to science, literature, or anything they choose to do.
More research on the brain is needed, and many more studies need to be done in order to fully support this thesis in ways that will make people want to spend their money on education. If you don’t care about children, consider that it is their world in which you will be living when you are old.
And, when you are old, your experience can be much richer if you avail yourself of the continuing plasticity of the brain–particularly if you have a stroke. I’ve lately read My Stroke Of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey (Jill Bolte Taylor, Viking), The Brain That Changes Itself (Norman Doidge, Viking), and many other more complex books about neuroplasticity. Although it looks like work, brains can and do change, and recover many skills lost through a traumatic event.
My interest in memory is for many of the same reasons, but also because memory is all we are. I want to understand the source of all this richness. With various memory drugs in the pipeline, we need to understand what their use might mean for society at large, not just for the Alzheimer’s patients who will be the first users. For two concepts about how memory works, read In Search Of Memory by Eric Kandel, a Nobel Prize Laureate. For the anti-Kandel view, read In The Places Of Memory by George Johnson. And anything by V. S. Ramachandran. Those are just for starters.
That depends on whom you mean by “people.” Writers of hard SF should pay close attention to whichever areas they extrapolate from (genetic engineering, Mars exploration, particle physics), which they’re probably doing anyway since if they weren’t interested, they wouldn’t be writing about it. People who are not SF writers, and SF writers in their regular lives, should also pay attention to whatever interests them. Cutting-edge science manages to go along pretty well without massive public observation, since what interests most people isn’t scientific research but its more practical little cousin, technology. When information theory becomes a working computer, or Nobel-quality work on immune-cell proliferation becomes a cure for cancer, then people are interested. Fascinated. Can’t keep them away.
Of course, the SF crowd will have gotten there first. Or so we hope, anyway.
My science expertise is in astronomy and physics and I’ll try to be specific in these areas, on the timescale of the next couple of years. A lot of what we do is technology driven and my first three items are all based on new or upgraded facilities.
The first thing to watch is a blast from the past, the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble has been crippled for several years now with most of its scientific instruments in one failure mode or another. You keep hearing about new results because it takes us a while to present older data, even though there are few things coming out of Hubble right now that are cutting edge. That will change after this October when there is a NASA space shuttle servicing mission and Hubble gets fixed up and powered up with two new instruments and gets two others restored. The most revolutionary instrument is COS, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph. According to the Space Telescope Science Institute:
“The primary science objectives of the [COS] mission are the study of the origins of large scale structure in the Universe, the formation and evolution of galaxies, the origin of stellar and planetary systems, and the cold interstellar medium.”
From NASA to ESA. The Europeans are launching this year a revolutionary twin mission, Herschel/Planck, that will look at the universe in ways we’ve never done before:
“Herschel Space Observatory will be the first space observatory covering the full far infrared and sub-millimetre waveband. Its telescope will have the largest mirror ever deployed in space (three and a half meters in diameter). The optical system will collect the light from distant and poorly known objects, such as newborn galaxies thousands of millions of light-years away and focus it onto three instruments with precision cryogenic detectors.”
I myself will be proposing to use Herschel to study star formation in quasars, making observations that have simply not been possible before.
“Planck will be the first European mission to study the birth of the Universe. Planck satellite will collect and characterise radiation from the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). It will use sensitive radio receivers capable of distinguishing temperature variations of about one microkelvin. Planck satellite measurements will be used to produce the best ever maps of anisotropies in the CMB radiation field.”
Planck has the combination of high sensitivity, spatial resolution, and all sky coverage that has never been before available.
On to physics. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland went online this year. We will be generating energies higher than we ever have before, allowing us to study physics experimentally that we’ve only approached theoretically so far. To what end?
“The LHC was built to help scientists to answer key unresolved questions in particle physics. The unprecedented energy it achieves may even reveal some unexpected results that no one has ever thought of!”
One much touted goal is to discover the Higgs particle, an as yet unseen particle governing mass predicted to exist by the standard model of particle physics. Another issue much discussed recently is the threat of the LHC creating a black hole that will destroy the Earth, but this is simply bad science fiction. Nature already produces collisions like those in the LHC in our atmosphere using high energy cosmic rays. If the LHC is going to have the capability of destroying us, we wouldn’t be here to build it.
Finally, something more general. The one large field in physical science that is taking off in ways both obvious and subtle is in nano materials and we’re now getting into applications. Smarter materials are being designed and built. Stronger materials, too, that may help ideas like the space elevator get off the ground (or in this case, get dropped to the ground). While the theoretical research continues, what is going to be more apparent is the infiltration of nanotechnology into products of all sorts, from clothing to housing to electronics to just about everything.
As an environmental scientist, I am privy to and very concerned with issues like climate change, species extinction, and new diseases. As a science fiction writer, I tend to include these issues in my works (e.g., Darwin’s Paradox). The question is, should we intervene? Or should we let nature take its course? Or have we already inadvertently interfered through actions of ignorance and greed? It is, after all is said and done, a matter of scale and perspective.
We can’t expect the natural world around us to run smoothly and safely for our benefit. New diseases, pollution, species extinction, and climate change are all results of unexpected impacts, whether caused by humanity’s activities or not. Though incredibly elegant, Nature is not simple, or “simple-minded”; Gaia has a complex agenda that we really aren’t terribly privy to yet. Scale is something you can’t see or easily measure and assess if you are in it. Scale is like hindsight. Perspective is another matter, and often connected to scale. According to research at the University of Bristol, a major extinction event (and climate change) at the end of the Permain (about 250 million years ago) killed over 90 percent of life on Earth, including insects, plants, marine animals, amphibians, and reptiles. Ecosystems were destroyed worldwide and this was the nearest life came to being completely wiped out. It apparently took 30 million years for ecosystems to fully recover, according to the Bristol study.
The systems of Gaia are complex from the tiniest cell to the complex planet itself. Weather, for instance, is a “chaotic system” that displays a fractal structure and a range of chaotic behaviour on many scales. Temperature, air pressure, wind speed and humidity are all sensitive to initial conditions and interrelated in multi-scales. Says Brian Arthur, professor at Stanford University: the complex approach is total Taoist. In Taoism there is no inherent order. “The world starts with one, and the one become two and the two become many, and the many led to myriad things.” The universe in Taoism is perceived as vast, amorphous, and ever changing. You can never nail it down. The elements always stay the same, yet they are always arranging themselves. So, it’s like a kaleidoscope: the world is a matter of patterns that change, that partly repeat, but never quite repeat, that are always new and different (as explained in the Butterfly Effect of Chaos Theory).
Western scientists are just beginning to appreciate this through the application of complexity theory and chaos theory, something the eastern world has “known” since ancient times: humility before nature, respect for richness and diversity of life, generation of complexity from simplicity, the need to understand the whole to understand the part. To live your life with integrity.
Traditional scientists myopically refuse to recognize the genius of atraditional science; practiced by those who take a risk (the risk, often of ridicule by their peers and contemporaries). It is as though the concept of proof through traditional means, like replication, is the only avenue of substantiation.
My suggestion for research is for scientists to make an effort to better understand our planet from a holistic perspective. To follow the milestone efforts of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis who coined the term “Gaia”, a self-regulating, autopoietic system, a giant ecosystem, comprised of millions of smaller ecosystems and on downward to the cells and tiny particles that make up this Earth and vast universe alike. I am suggesting that scientific specialists consult one another in an approach to integrate their focused research into a larger body of inter-related data and meta-analysis. It’s about time we pulled our myopic scientific heads out of our respective sandboxes and thought outside the box. I would personally like to see a few new disciplines emerge, the study of “Planetary Ecology” or “Fractal Ecology”. In some ways, our exobiologists are doing this already; like NASA biometeorologist Nancy Kiang, who admitted that in order to recognize alien life on other planets, we must understand our own first. Not unlike what science fiction writers do…
My mantra is always, “Look to the fringes!” That is, those boundary areas between disciplines, where scientists from different fields are collaborating with each other and doing more interdisciplinary investigations. That’s where many exciting breakthroughs are likely to occur in the near future, I think. And with good reason: Science has become so highly specialized/compartmentalized that researchers often aren’t aware of breakthroughs in other fields that might have relevance to their own work. So any kind of cross-pollination is likely to lead to new insights or technologies, and, potentially, revolutionary breakthroughs. For instance:
* Michael Deems at Rice University made a splash a few years ago when he applied an old nuclear spin glass model to the problem of predicting which strain of flu virus was likely to dominate in a given season. His new predictive model turned out to be better than the one then in use by the Centers for Disease Control. He’s since turned his attention to HIV. Spin glass models — a common tool in physics — are also being applied to studying the fluctuations in the stock market, and to understanding traffic patterns.
* There is an explosion in neuroscience currently in progress, aided by such physics-based tools as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), helping researchers to better understand how the mind works, and why. Crossover examples include MIT’s Sebastian Seung, who worked in AI (artificial neural networks) for years and has now turned his attention to mapping each individual synapse of the human brain — a truly monumental task!
* Advances in computing, wireless networking, and materials science are giving rise to some very interesting work in advanced robotics, including development of “smart” prosthetic limbs, as well as neural implants enabling subjects to control a computer cursor, for example, with their minds.
* Nanomaterials, acoustic techniques, and plasma scalpels or pencils (employing thin beams of ionized gas) are all examples of physics-based research that could yield highly effective tools for killing cancerous tumors, without the need for invasive surgery and/or rounds of chemotherapy.
The possibilities are boundless. Of course, as far as mainstream physics goes, all eyes will be turned toward the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva as it fires up later this year. No, it is not going to destroy the world; trust me. But it could really shake up physics in some exciting and profound ways, depending on what the experiments uncover over the next decade.
I wonder whether we’re talking about the majority of us or scientists. But one leads to the other, perhaps. If average folks have a high interest in something, maybe research funding will follow.
At first glance, it would be tempting to pick something practical. Some line of study that would lead to cures in medicine, alternative energy sources, or a computer keyboard that didn’t give writers tennis elbow. But no, I’m going to choose something worthless.
I wish we’d pay more attention to the Theory of Everything.
I’m coming from the standpoint that basic research gets short shrift in the quest for marketable results. I read somewhere that we don’t understand photosynthesis at important levels of detail. Perhaps if we did understand photosynthesis we’d be on track for truly efficient solar panels. In the 19th century, realizing that electricity and magnetism could be understood as one combined force led to the harnessing of electricity, radio and that cell phone in your purse.
So I’m just saying, let’s get back to basics.
And what could be more basic than understanding the fundamental interactions in nature? (Electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces and gravity.) I don’t pretend to understand the issues, but apparently we’ve still got a long slog ahead to fitting gravity into the general scheme of things. (Unless you’re an adherent of M-theory, and think string theory solves it. In case you care about an English major’s opinion, I agree with those who hold that string theory is suspect because it can’t be tested.)
So let’s give a cheer for basic physics. And when we take an interest, perhaps our short-sighted electeds (Clinton era and beyond) will rue the day they canceled the superconducting Super Collider in Texas even after 14 miles of it had already been dug. The research continues at CERN at a smaller scale.
Manipulate gravity, anyone? There’s an application in there that could change the world.
One area to watch is nanoscale science. Note that I’m not saying “nanotechnology.” We all know how that was overhyped, starting with Drexler’s potboiling nonfiction book, Engines of Creation. The nanotechnology hype years ago made a physicist friend of mine remark, “Yeah, right–too cheap to meter,” alluding to the famously unfulfilled early promise that nuclear power would provide limitless electricity.
However, after Rice University professors Robert Curl and Richard Smalley won the Nobel Prize (with Harold Kroto of the University of Sussex) for the discovery of buckminsterfullerene, Rice started a major research effort in nanoscale science and technology. In 1997 a state-of-the art laboratory building was dedicated to the effort. Rice University doesn’t expend that kind of institutional energy chasing moonbeams.
According to the Smalley Institute Website, “Research in nanoscience is exploding, both because of the intellectual allure of constructing matter and molecules one atom at a time, and because the new technical capabilities permit creation of materials and devices with significant societal impact.”
I work in the Rice library and watch the university press releases. Rice researchers regularly announce subtle but rather amazing discoveries–“‘NanoRust’ Cleans Arsenic from Drinking Water,” “Ultra-Short Nanotube capsules Pave Way to Imaging Inside Cells.” Nanoscale science comes in several flavors–computational; “dry,” which means carbon, silicon, circuitry, and materials science; and “wet,” as in water, think biological, biomedical and environmental applications. Rice has a Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) busily investigating the interface between nanomaterials and biology. Nanomaterials including buckminsterfullerene have toxicity issues, but on the other hand, they have all kinds of environmental and biomedical uses.
In short, nanoscience discoveries are subtle and specific, but in the aggregate, spectacular. There’s some visual charm too. Buckminsterfullerene has the cute soccer ball geometry, and Rice came up with the Guinness World Record’s largest single-walled carbon nanotube model. It was 1,181 foot long, one foot wide, bright blue, and arrayed in the main quadrangle for photo ops.
Moreover Houston has a swarm of highly competitive startup companies all trying to bite off a profitable part of the big scientific opportunity represented by nanostuff. Between interesting science, environmental dangers and opportunities, and the human factors of startup companies, I’d call nanoscale science a hot spot under the drifting tectonic plate of science fiction. Expect intermittent geysers of discovery and opportunity, as well as possible eruptions of environmental disaster. (CBEN had a cameo role in my 2003 Analog novelette “Trinity Bay,” with a nano-ecological disaster unfolding in a huge flood along Texas’ Trinity River.)
[Editor's Note: In putting these entries together, I am grateful that Firefox has a build in spellchecker. However, I find this very curious: the spellchecker knew how to spell Buckminsterfullerene but not 'nano'.]
Filed under: Mind Meld
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