Saturday, 27 December 2014

Science: 50 years in retrospect

I have taken an interest in things scientific for over 50 years. My tastes incline more to basic science than applied science and technology so that will colour my reflections in this post. Recently I tried to identify the most important advances in science since around 1960. No doubt you will disagree with these personal opinions - if so, let me know in comments what your own picks are.

For me the rise of computer technology has produced a revolution in our lives and in our thinking. It's hard to really appreciate how powerful today's computer are compared to those of 50 years ago. I like the figures, first calculated by Christopher Evans (in his 1979 book The Mighty Micro) to compare advances in automobile performance with advances in computer performance. Updating these comparisons to 2014: if automobile performance had increased at the same rate as computer performance then

  • a car would have a speed of around 100 billion kilometres per hour - over 100 times the speed of light
  • its fuel consumption would be over 10,000 kilometers per litre
  • your standard garage could hold 100s of vehicles and
  • the manual for opening the front door would be as thick as the Bible (the last is a humorous comparison whose provenance I don't know).
These figures are somewhat rough and ready but they portray the scale of how computers have advanced. However, just as remarkable and as difficult to foresee, is the way that computers now pervade our lives. Thomas Watson, the President of IBM, got it so wrong in 1943 when he estimated that 5 computers would serve the needs of the entire world. Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, said in 1977 "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home". Computers are now inextricably bound up in our professional and personal lives in ways that not even experts expected.

My next pick is the Science of the Gene by which I mean our understanding of the importance of genes in controlling all biology on the planet. When I left school in 1964 I had not taken a single course on biology (it was possible to take biology but only as an elective and it would not have contained any genetics). 

But the stage was certainly set for the Genetic Revolution in 1964. Crick and Watson had discovered in 1953 how DNA could replicate itself: that it, rather than proteins, was the genetic material. Although Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection was very well-accepted it was now able to use the new gene discoveries to explain exactly how it worked. Nevertheless the acceptance of this Neo-Darwinism has taken many years and there are still hold-outs in some educational institutions in the world that reject it as being contrary to their religious beliefs. However modern biological theories all depend on our understanding of how genes control biological functions and modern medical advances simply could not have happened without our increasing knowledge of genetics: determining the genetic constitution of various creatures,  designing drugs to target various illnesses, and advances in agriculture are just some of the things we owe to the Science of the Gene.

But culturally also genetics has had great benefits. One of these was to provide a scientific refutation that certain peoples were inferior to others - anyone who now argues this need not be taken seriously since on the genetic level we are a single species. Yet another benefit, and a breath-taking revelation to me, is knowing that every single living thing on the entire planet is part of the same biological family. We are all related: son to father, human to horse to spider to tortoise to tomato to lichen to bacteria. This is a beautiful and wonderful fact, far more miraculous than any religious explanation of creation.

My third pick is historically the most recent: neuroscience and the workings of the brain. For centuries we have been unable to study the brain as intensely as other organs because its physical responses are so much more subtle than in other organs. While the idea that the neuron was the basic unit of brain activity was first proposed over 100 years ago by Santiago Raman y Cajal it was really not until last few decades that neuroscience research escalated bringing it from a subdiscipline of biology into a multi-disciplinary subject spanning chemistry, computer science, engineering, linguistics, mathematics, medicine, genetics, philosophy and psychology.

The huge array of techniques being used in today's neuroscience research coupled with the fact that many of the conclusions being drawn are complex and difficult to summarise makes it impossible for me to get a clear view of just where the subject is sitting on the scale of achievement. However I have no doubt that this work which seeks to elucidate the most complex organ in the human body will have very profound societal effects.

I am not only thinking of the benefits to medical science, or the computational model that is so different from the von Neumann model. More I have in mind the more nebulous effect it has on our psychological understanding of ourselves. Neuroscience is gradually dismantling centuries of woolly metaphors that have taken hold of our popular view of "the mind". For example extra-sensory perception and psychokinesis are now totally discredited. Freud's "id", "superego" etc are now recognised as just made-up concepts. We understand that feelings of wonder, or feelings of being connected to a remote being are caused by electrical patterns forming in our brain. And, perhaps most profound of all, mind-body dualism is a dead theory: all our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, sensations originate in the brain and there is no separate mind.

As I stated at the beginning of this post the scientific theories I have selected as the most influential are surely biased by my own experiences. Let me know if you have your own choices to add and I may do a follow-up post on some others.