Friday, December 20, 2013

Science poses challenges as we begin the fateful “fourteenth year”

== Science Gets Bigger ==
It used to be that most scientists pursued research on their own professorial salary.  Then came the glory days of Edison and Bell Labs, funding themselves out of near-term investments by eager moguls with an eye on the 5-year return horizon.  Alas, although there are certainly examples of both, nowadays, they are no longer probing the cutting edge. Commercial product development is fine, but it creates no seed corn.
The lesson? Science is getting harder!  We've plucked a lot of the low hanging fruit. "Return on Investment" that's well beyond 5 years is not the sort of thing any corporation will invest in. So, we decide to do these great things together.  Yes I said that hated word - "we." And while there are innovative new ways for "we" to engage in such collaborative endeavors (e.g. KickstarterPetriDish, and Microryza and RocketHub ), you and I both know how it still must be done, if you want major efforts to assault major zones of the unknown….

….How "we" can - by general, majority consensus - choose to pay into a fund that hires great teams to push back the shadows for us!  And yes, it is called "taxes."
Seriously. I defy you to find more spectacular efficiency and exceeded expectations than exists in a wide swathe of government-funded scientific research which, with a tiny sliver of the overall budget, laid the groundwork for vast industries by inventing jet planes, helicopters, GEO rockets, satellites, telecom, pharmaceuticals, genomics, and um… the Internet?
curiosity-roverBut let's make it simpler by focusing on NASA. And sure, I have been in the field long enough to point to some horrific examples of waste and bloat.
On the other hand, can YOU land a spectacular roving science lab on Marsdangling at the end of a winch, hanging from a rocket, suspended from a parachute, that detached from an aerobraking shell that threaded the eye of a needle, like firing a bullet into a specific window in Manhattan… from Los Angeles? I'd pay ten times the share of my taxes that NASA gets, just to watch that happen again.
And you actually listen to dopes who say "government can never do anything well"? WHY would you ever listen to such fools about anything, ever again?
Let me tell you what I did when Curiosity landed... stumbling in a daze of sheer, unadulterated joy, I staggered to the nearest window -- exactly as Peter Finch demanded that a nation do in that movie NETWORK screaming its passion to the sky -- only with one… small… difference… as I shouted to my neighbors and to the stars:
       That's what I shouted.
       You mean you didn't do that?
==Transcendence & God-like powers?==

Will Google Glass make us goo-godlike?  One researcher sees a combination of computational imaging and new-form-factor, camera-equipped devices will allow for a set of what he described as “superhero vision” capabilities.  Of course I portrayed this long ago in EARTH and more recently in EXISTENCE.  But now these notions are hitting mainstream.

Okay, the biggest recent step toward Augmented Reality (AR) is this: The Structure Sensor plugs in to any iPad and makes a detailed 3D image of your surroundings. It can map an entrance foyer or a motorcycle's cylinder head with full measurements for every edge, to 1% error. Uses abound, but something like this is essential for AR.  The Kickstarter is massively overfunded.
Something-big-comingSpeaking of godlike powers, when the brilliant algorithm-genius Stephen Wolfram claims that "something very big is coming," we had all better pay attention. In the context of Wolfram|AlphaMathematicaCDF and many other breakthroughs -- "…something amazing has happened. We’ve figured out how to take all these threads, and all the technology we’ve built, to create something at a whole different level. The power of what is emerging continues to surprise me. But already I think it’s clear that it’s going to be profoundly important in the technological world, and beyond."
Wow!  Only let me add this. In our rapid forward leap into the cybernetic age, there has been one iron rule. Developing new and rapidly improving HARDWARE has been relatively easy. Software, on the other hand has lagged terribly. (I believe something like this helps to explain the quirky-jerky way that human evolution developed, over the last half million years; indeed, it may help to explain why human beings so vastly and rapidly overshot the level of tech-sapience we needed, in order to become masters of the planet.  It might even shed light on the Fermi Paradox and why we seem so alone in the cosmos.)
In this mix of fast and slow, the Wolfram teams have played a unique role, breaking through glass ceilings of software capability, time and again. I am eager to learn more.
Looking ahead to other big advances...On MindMeld, authors including Geoffrey Landis, Gregory Benford, Julie Czernada and Ken Liu discuss Science Fictional Technologies that are just around the corner...
Meanwhile, Motorola Mobility (Google) has filed a patent for a "throat tattoo" that would allow users to subvocalize input and commands without audible sounds… now why didn't I patent when I laid it all out in EARTH?  And oops… did I just invalidate Motorola's application?

transcendenceSci Fi News alert: Transcendence is a coming film about - well - a singularity propelled by AI. My hope and expectation, based on certain linguistic turns of phrase, suggest to me hope that it would diverge from hoary luddite cliches. But the trailer seems to foretell another yawn-worthy anti-future, dystopian rant, alas.
==  More Science! ==
Introducing the DARPA Robotics Challenge winners: THOR (Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot), CHIMP: CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform, and NASA’s Humanoid Valkyrie are among the walking, climbing and driving robots of the next generation… 

Do some asteroids contain heavy lumps of  quark matter? One possible kind of "dark matter" might have settled into the sun and planets, sinking to their cores.  But one proto planet was shattered into asteroids! So lumps of that old core might still be out there, behaving oddly… and helping to explain the recent surge of interest in asteroids…?
Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims: This list will help non-scientists to interrogate advisers and to grasp the limitations of evidence, or so says Nature.
Dark-matter-experimentThe Large Underground Xenon experiment looks directly for the invisible particles thought to make up dark matter. It's truly hard, since it's been calculated a dark matter particle might pass through a block of lead. The search continues...
200 light years long with only a 50:50 chance of interacting with the normal atoms (except via gravity.)  This is a nice piece of science journalism… though I'd have liked a paragraph about how they subtract the inevitable flashes from Neutrino hits.
Cracked gives us us a glimpse of five ways that language skews your perceptions.  Worthwhile.
Scientists have now discovered sizable freshwater reserves underneath the seabed on the continental shelves around the world. It is estimated that a staggering 500,000 cubic kilometers of low-salinity water exists off the coast of North America, Australia, China and South Africa, potentially yielding vast water supplies that could delay – what researchers believe to be – a “… looming global water crisis.”
A cool photo essay on "Earth Ship" style homes.  A valuable lesson on a positive trend… though in fact it takes specialized tools and knowledge to do a few of these things… like ramming old tires packed with dirt. Still, well worth a look and pondering.
In a breakout study that should have been made decades ago, researchers have compared fertility to aging to death rates in widely diverse orders of life, from plants to hydras to reptiles and mammals. The "normal" patterns we are used to seem not to be so prevalent,  after all, putting a crimp in most theories for why we age.
Oh…. what did I mean by "fateful 14th year"?  Wait and see….


Unknown said...

Everyone knows what's going on; so why don't you share your insight into the 14th year?

Alex Tolley said...

laid the groundwork for vast industries by inventing (...) pharmaceuticals

Erm, no. Pharmaceuticals have been in existence for a very long time (c.f patent medicines). Ehrlich's work (e.g. Salvarsan) was certainly not tax payer funded in Germany, and this predates US medicines development. Government funded basic medical research boosted developments in some areas, especially in ares that lacked industry funding.

The jet engine was invented by the Englishman, Frank Whittle. This was done without direct government funding, although no doubt government funding for aircraft was fungible. The US acquired designs, principally from the Germans after WWII, and then government funding through aeroengine manufacturers for specific aircraft drove development.

Science and development funding is again under some attack today, especially in the US, but also elsewhere. In the US, funding is increasingly being subject to relevancy for economic and military security, a major problem IMO. There has also been criticism voiced about the lack of funding for blue sky experiments in favor of likely to succeed work, especially at the NIH. This is likely eroding out future scientific development in at least some areas.

David Brin said...

Come on Alex, why have you become so pedantic, lately? Sure the very first jets and pharmas were yadda yadda. And you actually deny my key point? That USG investment in those things sent them skyrocketing in tangible value to civilization?

StephenMeansMe said...

Ah, should anyone really be surprised by this?

NSA paid $10 million for a backdoor to the RSA encryption algorithm

Ten mil seems cheap to ensure a weak-enough encryption. And who says our government wastes money!

Tim H. said...

Alex, Whittle had government funding, if it had been more, the battle of Britain might've been over quicker. So yes, government funded, but at the beginning, British & German funded. And I think Igor Sikorsky haas a working helicopter before Army money started flowing. Details, but they shouldn't be forgotten. Dr. Brin did omit one bit of tech that government money figured in overwhelmingly, solid state electronics and chips, whose light weight and reliability was very important in avionics and weapons. Such wonders, one could almost forget they were accelerated by a desire to create smoking holes in the ground.

Alex Tolley said...

@Db - you may see it as a pedantic comment, I see it as about accuracy. While I agree with your premise in general, I think you overstate your case by throwing in the kitchen sink. In the case of Pharma, government funding of basic research that involved drug discovery is a relatively recent phenomenon. Furthermore, as most of the investment cost in drug development happens at the later phase drug trials, this is entirely drug company funded. I think you might be hard put to find many major drugs that had their origins in government sponsored research.

@Tim H. From the Frank Whittle website:
While still a cadet he wrote a thesis contending that planes would need to fly at high altitudes, where air resistance is much lower, in order to achieve long ranges and high speeds. During 1929 while at Central Flying School he conceived the idea of using the Gas Turbine as a means of power for producing jet thrust but the Air Ministry failed to take any action in support of the project. By 1930 he applied for a patent on the Turbo-jet engine, as well as performing ‘crazy flying’ at the RAF Pageant, Hendon. During 1931/32 Whittle was a Floatplane and Catapult Test Pilot and subsequently posted to School of Engineering, Henlow. In 1935 he was unable to renew his patent because of financial problems and, since the Air Ministry were not interested, his patent details were published worldwide. [emphasis mine]

This is the evidence that I take to indicate that Whittle did not get government backing, at least in the early years. This attitude was typical of much of the UK's attitude to R&D and also business development.

@DB. In my interpretation, in the US, as in the UK, aircraft procurement was the route for jet engine development, rather than direct government funding of non-commercial researchers. In the UK, the most famous example of early government development of aircraft was the R101 airship which ignominiously crashed on its maiden flight. By the 1960's, the UK could no longer afford to develop aircraft and most programs were terminated. In the US, aircraft development was stimulated by military procurement which funded commercial development, and driven especially quickly during the cold war. AFAIK, the US government was most involved in rocket development, mostly via the military, but later via Nasa in the race for the moon. Direct aircraft R&D was run by Naca, a relatively minor player until it was merged into Nasa. It is certainly arguable whether Nasa is an effective institution to develop manned spaceflight. This is in contrast to teh effectiveness of JPL in developing robot probes.

The reason that government spending is appropriate in developing new science is that this work is a public good. For example, pharma was not interested in funding the human genome project, even as a consortium, even though they have hugely benefitted from the knowledge gained with the data. Luckily they didn't, become the value is much wider than just drug development. Conversely, pharma has stymied science by patenting genes.

locumranch said...

"Data becomes algorithmic. Algorithms become data. There’s no distinction needed between code and data. And everything becomes both intrinsically scriptable, and intrinsically interactive".

Sounds like Wolfram has reinvented the computer equivalent of natural language, containing therein all of our intrinsic biases, assumptions, preconceptions & value-judgments as immutably self-perpetuating algorithms. Thankfully, he hasn't written an algorithm for plain talk.

This way we can still use poorly-defined terms like 'transcendence' & 'singularity' and natter on about the potentially magical properties of unilluminated (dark and therefore supernatural) matter, all while indulging in self-rationalization & faulty logic.

"Government-funded scientific research" did NOT lay "the groundwork for vast industries by inventing jet planes, helicopters, GEO rockets, satellites, telecom, pharmaceuticals, genomics, and the ... internet" as Alex notes.

Top-Down Hierarchies are incapable of creativity, existing only to maintain stability, suppress invention & self-perpetuate.


David Brin said...

"Top-Down Hierarchies are incapable of creativity, existing only to maintain stability, suppress invention & self-perpetuate."

Welcome back to cogent-town, lad. You sure are entertaining during those manic phases, though cogency is noise, too.

In fact, as sophomoric oversimplifications go, this one is essentially correct. Or rather, hierarchies are creative in proportion to the vision of one… or maybe twenty … minds. "Ooh wouldn't a PYRAMID look cool, over there?"

And those creativities are inherently delusional, not subject to correcting criticism. In contrast, flattened enlightenments (Periclean Athens and Florence and our west) engage millions of creativity centers that range from individual arrogant solipsistic geniuses (FL Wright) to vast collaborative efforts that use hierarchy as the servant-coordinator of brilliant teams.

That too is a vast oversimplification. , of course.

Duncan Cairncross said...

"Top-Down Hierarchies are incapable of creativity, existing only to maintain stability, suppress invention & self-perpetuate."

BUT if the vision of the ONE is to create a separate flattened creative center.....
Which is where things like the "Skunk Works" come in

Seriously even the most hierarchical control freaks normally know that they have to cut the creative function some slack
(Well some of them do)

"since the Air Ministry were not interested, his patent details were published worldwide."

You seem to be implying that his patent details were published because he "was unable to renew his patent"

That is NOT how the system works, as soon as his patent was awarded the details become public knowledge
The only exception is if the military had been interested - then he would not have been given a patent at all

Paul451 said...

From the last thread:

Re: Cheating cheaters.
"which has made "cheating" in all its forms, if not acceptable, at least a requirement to compete."

Saw an Australian study on drug cheating in sport; people are more likely to use illegal supplements the stronger their belief that other competitors are using illegal supplements. Or flipping it around, if people think a competition is fair, their instinct is to play fairly.

If people were innately bad, you'd see a similar number of cheaters regardless of how they viewed their rivals. A bad person would cheat for advantage whether other people were cheating or not. This suggests that widespread cheating (corruption/etc) only occurs when people think they need to do it to "keep up".

This also means we have to be careful with monitoring/sousveillance, it may be that the more widespread the anti-cheating measures, the more people may assume that others are cheating. [Many of us have an instinctive hatred for being monitored even when we're doing nothing wrong... especially when we're doing nothing wrong. It may be irrational, but monitoring feels like an act of aggression. Therefore we're "entitled" to respond with an act of aggression...]

Alex Tolley said...

@Duncan - I am not implying anything. I quoted directly from the Frank Whittle website.
If you disagree with the text, take it up with them.

Alex Tolley said...


This also means we have to be careful with monitoring/sousveillance, it may be that the more widespread the anti-cheating measures, the more people may assume that others are cheating.

That is a very interesting observation. It might not take long for confirmation bias to completely alter our culture. In a sense it has already happened, with assumptions that "most politicians are on the take", and "most cops are abusing our constitutional rights", even though these are almost certainly false.

Tim H. said...

Alex, at the very least compare the illustrations of centrifugal flow turbojets, the original Whittle concept with those of axial flow turbojets, which the Germans originally built, they distinctly improved it. Admittedly, not as large a conceptual leap ailerons were over wing-warping for roll control, but as big a deal as overhead valves were over side valves. And it's my bed time, no time to dig for references now.

locumranch said...

Hierarchies are self-perpetuating social stability mechanisms which do what they are designed to do: They set goals, allocate known resources, concentrate manpower & maintain focus until they accomplish their stated goals, but they cannot create because the act of creativity is intrinsically disruptive & destabilizing.

The problem is that such hierarchies are stabilizing mechanisms, becoming less accommodating & more DISHONEST over time, because honesty is just as destabilizing & disruptive to civil society as creativity is. The honest individual makes a poor citizen for the following reasons: (1) He cares more about 'truth' than he does for social niceties; (2) He is 'uncivil' in the sense that he does not suffer fools gladly; and (3) He proves himself dangerously unpredictable by placing abstract principle before self-interest.

In contrast, the dishonest individual makes a much better citizen & company man for the same reasons: (1) He cares more about social niceties than moral principle; (2) He manipulates fools for personal advantage; and (3) He is predictably trustworthy in the sense that he is entirely motivated by self-interest.

I agree with David that our society was once quite magnificent, being the stablest & most successfully exploitive in the history of the world, taking & improving known 100 yr old technologies like electricity, circuitry, the internal combustion engine, the rocket, the automobile & the airplane to unheard of heights ... but no longer. This is what our Magnificent Society has become for the sake of social stability:

An Established Oligarchy, a Liar's Hierarchy, a Morass of Immorality, a Preserve for Political Correctness, and an Opportunist's Wetdream.


Alex Tolley said...

@Tim.H - no question the German design was better and became the basis of modern jets. That doesn't alter Whittle's status as inventor of the jet engine, if that is your implication. More importantly, it was done without government funding.

If you are interested in post WWII jet aircraft development history, I can highly recommend this very readable little book: Empire of the Clouds: When Britain's Aircraft Ruled the World For a while, Britain was possibly the leading innovator of aircraft development, and the US benefited from this. Like the USSR's collapse, Britain was unable to maintain heavy government military development and almost all aircraft development was ended by the late 1960's. Tragically, IMO, so was Britain's nascent space program. Only recently has it been revived in a very modest way.

Tony Fisk said...

UK still come up with innovative rocket designs (eg SCRAM)

Speaking of pivotal years, a new study tries to source the funding of climate change denial organisations. Interesting conclusions:
- funding is of the order of one billion dollars a year
- Exxon and Koch have reduced funding substantially since 2008, but...
- anonymous donations have increased dramatically over the same period (the author was unable to trace them).

Tony Fisk said...

... take home point:

“This is how wealthy individuals or corporations translate their economic power into political and cultural power,” he [Brulle] said. “They have their profits and they hire people to write books that say climate change is not real. They hear people to go on TV and say climate change is not real. It ends up that people without economic power don't have the same size voice as the people who have economic power, and so it ends up distorting democracy.

“That is the bottom line here. These are unaccountable organisations deciding what our politics should be. They put their thumbs on the scale … It is more one dollar one vote than one person one vote.”

timphyt ufe: the Finnish oligarch oil billionaire who capcha says is behind it all!

Paul451 said...

Tony Fisk,
"UK still come up with innovative rocket designs (eg SCRAM)"

And the whole Skylon thing.

[Which I once thought was Britain's version of the Moller "Skycar" investor scam, but turns out to be real technology. If the supercooler works as advertised (and at speed) then it would allow a spacecraft in orbit to dip into the atmosphere and fill its tanks with LOx. There have been designs for decades, but the heat-of-compression is beyond the limits of available materials. The Reaction Engine supercooler may make such designs possible.]

[Supreme Recautr: Grand overseer of all regular Inspecteurs De Cauting.]

Paul451 said...

Re: US government funding vs "Simpsons Did It".

I took David's point as being, not that the US researchers invented everything, but that the benefit of govt funded research to US industry vastly outweighed the cost.

For example, the hypertext protocol behind the Web came from CERN, but the supercomputer funding pushed by Al Gore, at least according to Marc Anderson, led directly to the development of the browser that became the Netscape Navigator. And the '80s semiconductor research fund which lead to the US semiconductor industry recapturing leadership from Japan and the Asian tigers.

(Likewise, the US govt didn't invent the airplane, but NACA is really the only reason that the US had an aircraft industry after the 1920's.)

Alex Tolley said...

@Paul451 I took David's point as being, not that the US researchers invented everything, but that the benefit of govt funded research to US industry vastly outweighed the cost.

I understand what DB was saying. What I wanted to correct was the inclusion of industries that did not follow the government funded route. The problem I see is that not understanding why public funding is needed. If the argument used is the one you use above, one can get into an ideological shouting match. Free marketers will question why the government was involved in the spending at all, rather than private industry. Cost-benefit analysis is not an appropriate metric to use.

The appropriate metric is whether the publicly funded research is a public good [that may or may not lead to industrialization] that will not be undertaken by industry. A good example is funding for sub-atomic physics. Industry was not going to do this research even in the early days, and certainly not at the LHC level. The practical value of such pure research is rarely understood at the time. In the US, it paved the way for the ending of WWII by defeating Japan and was the basis of the electronics industry. I've already alluded to the funding of the HGP.

Since you mentioned NACA, that is a nice seque. NACA did a lot of research on wing sections that is still used today. This makes sense because no aircraft manufacturer would want to spend the money doing this research except except in a focused way, and each firm would be duplicating effort. Worse, the fundamental science would be buried in patents on wing sections. Far better to make the science available and let the manufacturers use it to build better airplanes. NACA partially funded the X-15 program, although it was a junior partner with the military (primarily the air force). We got basic science and technology from the program that was used for the Space Shuttle. If you want to build an hypersonic aircraft, you start there.

But equally clearly, government should not fund industry players unless there is strategic need. This results in "picking winners". History is rife with the failures of this approach. I mentioned that Britain exited almost all aerospace development by the end of the 1960's. One reason was that the level of funding was not sustainable against the US which was the main market for advanced aircraft. The legacy today is that UK aircraft development is now a pan-European effort and sales of military and commercial aircraft are extremely political.
DoE funding of particular energy technologies is equally problematic where it is viewed as a strategic endeavor rather than having science objectives. Note the NIF at Livermore for laser fusion is still primarily a science objective and should be funded. But at some point I expect it to continue for political reasons if the science doesn't advance and it becomes an issue of technology development. Is industry going to build a fusion reactor?


Alex Tolley said...


Skylon maybe an example that shows the short-sightedness of government funding, recapitulating the failures of rocket research in the UK in the interwar period. Reaction Engines has been going it alone on development of the SABRE engine. It took a lot of work just to get a tiny 25m pound European investment to get to a milestone proving the hypersonic cooling system. It may bet a further 600m pounds investment thereafter. This is almost a rounding error for US aerospace spending, even European spending. The established space launch providers don't want their industry upset, so they were pushing back. The futility of this is evident as SpaceX promises to completely undermine their business via a different approach to reusability. Watch European politicians protect ESA's turf over the next decade, as the US will do too for NASA and its major contractors.

Which leads nicely to the future of space development in the US. Public funding of the science makes a lot of sense, yet space science has been squeezed in favor of maintaining the ISS and developing new launchers with the timely retirement of the Space Shuttle. Is there any public value in the new science and technology of launcher development at this stage - I personally don't believe so. It's mainly pork barrel. Better for NASA to focus on the science and pathfinding. The US should set a clear vision of where it wants to go in regards to space, and then create conditions favorable for private companies to sort out the best way to meet the goals if they wish to. NASA trying to develop the SLS is potentially more of a hindrance than a benefit. That we are seeing private ventures saying they want to fly to Mars, colonize it, mine asteroids, etc, suggests that we have reached this transition point. NASA's involvement in space should be like research stations in the Antarctic: focused on research of public value that cannot be privatized, yet use private company resources to construct and maintain the bases, and ferry scientists to their stations.

Next up, should private publishing houses control access to publicly funded science? Elsevier's recent actions suggest that we have clearly entered the era of rent-seeking by the publishers and that the rules for the publishers must be changed. IMO, all publicly funded research papers should become public domain after a few years at worst.

David Brin said...


Tony Fisk said...

I've not only read 'Heaven's Reach' but, as luck would have it, I discover 'Temptation' in the local library (part of the Mammoth Book of SF, as I recall)

Anyway, have a happy new year, folk. Continue to make good art.