Skip to main content

Who Discovers and Why

The Future and Its Friends

There’s now a nice review of Timothy Ferris’s new book Seeing in the Dark by Freeman Dyson, who’s a scientific hero of mine. (That’s a Salon link, so get it while you can. . .) The theme of the book is how amateur astronomers are more and more able to make contributions at the forefront of the science. (They’ve always been doing so, of course, but it’s gotten much more possible in the last ten or twenty years. The areas that amateurs can have an impact in have expanded, as well.)

Dyson goes on to talk about the division between fact-gathering and theorizing, and how the balance between the two changes as a science matures:

“It appears that each science goes through three phases of development. The first phase is Baconian, with scientists exploring the world to find out what is there. In this phase, amateurs and butterfly collectors are in the ascendant. The second phase is Cartesian, with scientists making precise measurements and building quantitative theories. In this phase, professionals and specialists are in the ascendant. The third phase is a mixture of Baconian and Cartesian, with amateurs and professionals alike empowered by the plethora of new technical tools arising from the second phase. In the third phase, cheap and powerful tools give scientists of all kinds freedom to explore and explain.”

This sounds about right to me. Dyson also makes a point about how Eastern and Western approaches stalled out for many centuries through an imbalance in these approaches: in the West, theorizing held sway and grubbing for facts was seen as irrelevant (think of the hold of the old Greek texts and of religion.) In the East, the Chinese and the Islamic world accumulated a good deal of interesting data, and happened on some incidental technology along the way, but didn’t spend much time trying to develop theories that could have extended the research.

(Incidentally, I’ve seen this imbalance at work in my own field. One research project I worked on was run under conditions where you had to have a rationale for almost any new compound series you tried. I spent most of my time, like everyone else, exploring around things that we knew worked well, but I always reserved time for trying out things just because no one had tried them before. Unfortunately, messing with some part of the molecule just because we had no idea of what would happen wasn’t seen as a good enough reason – you had to have some theoretical underpinning. Arrogant foolishness, considering what the theoretical state of medicinal chemistry is like.)

So where do the various sciences stand in their development? Dyson again:

“Astronomy, the oldest science, was the first to pass through the first and second phases and emerge into the third. Which science will be next? Which other science is now ripe for a revolution giving opportunities for the next generation of amateurs to make important discoveries? Physics and chemistry are still in the second phase. It is difficult to imagine an amateur physicist or chemist at the present time making a major contribution to science. Before physics or chemistry can enter the third phase, these sciences must be transformed by radically new discoveries and new tools.”

He’s got that right. At the moment, you really need some serious equipment to go after most of the unusual stuff in either field, but I have to say that he might be on to something. Chemical instrumentation is becoming smaller and more self-sufficient all the time, and if the trend continues, it’s possible to imagine a wealthy amateur having a high-field NMR and HPLC-mass spec capabilities in the basement. Zoning laws permitting, of course. (Actually, that sounds like a lot of fun, but maybe it’s just the “wealthy” part I’m thinking of.)

Dyson’s own bet for the next science to shift is biology, and I think the point is inarguable. It’s nearly a cliche in the field to be amazed at how far it’s come: for years now, high school students have been doing experiments that would have frizzed the hair of the 1975 Asilomar participants. You can do PCR in your kitchen, if you’re so minded. The molecular biology supply companies have been steadily making everything more out-of-the-box, selling kits and systems designed both to make the lab worker’s job more easy, and to make the companies more money. (There’s Adam Smith’s invisible hand for you. . .”It is not from the benevolence of the vendors of DNA primers that we expect the success of our hybridizations, but from their regard to their own interest.”)

Dyson pictures legions of homegrown DNA tinkerers, a vision I find simultaneously thrilling and alarming. That’s the authentic feeling of the future, though – it’s hard for me to trust any substantial prediction that doesn’t bring on those emotions. He’s probably right, and we’d better keep on learning how to deal with it.