Thursday, April 06, 2006

Science

A couple of weeks back now I was having a conversation with a friend and she said something that quite irked me. It was in relation to some research which was being carried out in Malaysia (?) I think. What the research was doing was cataloging species (invertebrates mostly, I think) in a particular location. She wandered about the morality of spending money cataloging invertebrates when there were homeless and hungry people in the country. Ok I admit that some needs are more important than others and that priorities need to be established. What really got me though was when she followed up by saying that we pretty knew what was happening anyway (climate change) and that yes we know we're loosing species, so do we really need to know which ones? Essentially she was saying that since we already have a good understanding of the processes, we didn't really need to worry about the simple stuff. Basic research is the foundation of the scientific process.

So what is the importance of working out what species are present in a patch of rain forest? It produces a series of data points or a snapshot in time if you will. Looked at in isolation it's not that important. It's when we use it to compare different points at either different places or different times that we can learn from it. Looking at presence or absence or abundance of species over time will reveal temporal trends, how the community has changed over time. Comparing different locations will tell us how communities vary over large areas.

Looking at different snapshots can be used to gauge the impact of particular events or activities as well. If we wanted to know how selective forestry affected a biological community then we'd use snapshots either taken from the location before-hand, during and afterwards, or from similar locales where the logging was and wasn't being carried out.

Unfortunately if we are lacking the basic research we can't answer the bigger questions. Science is like that in general. Carl Sagan in his book The demon Haunted World had a nice discussion of this particular point. His hypothetical situation was for Queen Victoria, Monarch of the British Empire to call for the invention of a device that would transmit her image and voice through the world in 1860. Could scientists of the period and unlimited sums of money produced television, or something similar? Those unfortunates given over to running this project would have been out of luck since in 1860, not only was there no technology that could produce this result, but there was no scientific theory sufficiently well understood that it could be used to produce the desired result.

At about the same time as this hypothetical situation was occurring, however an unassuming physicist named Maxwell had proposed equations linking of electrical and magnetic fields, and the observations of on the behaviour of light, into a hypothesis. This hypothesis tied together the work of many experiments of Faraday, Oersted, and others who had gone before him. An experimentally testable prediction of Maxwell's hypothesis was that a rapidly varying electric field should generate electromagnetic waves with properties analogous to those of visible light. This prediction was first confirmed experimentally by Heinrich Hertz in 1888, who found that he could generate a new kind of radiation, what we now know as radio waves. In fact, Maxwell's theory laid the foundation for all applications of light and other electromagnetic radiation that rely on their wave-like properties. Later in 1901 Guglielmo Marconi first transmitted radio signals across the Atlantic Ocean. From these beginnings followed everything we know today, radio, television, radar, etc.

Nevertheless could all this of been accomplished in 1860 had virtually unlimited funds been thrown at the project? Probably not. As Sagan points out, Maxwell was motivated only by his desire to understand a little of how the physical universe works. It is unlikely that he would have been asked to participate in such a project, and would probably not have been interested even if he had been asked. What was required was the gradual development of the theories that led to the understanding radio waves. While science occasionally process in great bursts, these are interspersed with periods of gradual accumulation of knowledge.

My PhD thesis opens with this wonderful quote (of an admittedly dubious source)
A man may die yet still endure if his work enters the greater work. Time is carried upon a current incepted by forgotten deeds. As all men must thank progenitors obscured by the past, so must we endure the present that those who come after may continue the greater work
Rick Priestly, Warhammer 40000: Rogue Trader

And this is what I'm trying to get at. I'm quite happy puttering along doing my research. I may make some major contribution or I may not. My contribution most likely will only be a small brick in the wall that is scientific progress. However, that wall is made up of lots of small bricks, building upon those that have gone before. If we stop contributing, then the wall will cease to grow, or (even worse) we start to take bricks away, then the whole edifice will start to crumble.

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