Monday, September 08, 2014

Science changed my life – and yours too.

Can you name a book that made you rethink? A song that helped you through bad times? A movie that gave you a new perspective, new hope, an idea that changed your life or that of people around you? And was it worth the price of the book, the download fee, the movie ticket? If you think of the impact it has had, does it come as a number in your currency of choice?

Those of us working in basic research today are increasingly forced to justify their work by its social impact, it’s value for the society that they live in. It is a good question because scientists payed by tax money should keep in mind who they are working for. But that impact that the funding agencies are after, it is expected to come in the form of applications, something that your neighbor will eventually be able to spend money on, to keep the economic wheels turning and the gears running.

It might take centuries for today’s basic research to result in technological applications, and predicting them is more difficult than doing the research itself. The whole point of doing basic research is that its impact is unpredictable. And so this pressure to justify what we are doing is often addressed by fantastic extrapolations of today’s research, potential gadgets that might come out of it, new materials, new technologies, new services. These justification that we come up with ourselves are normally focused on material value, something that seems tangible to your national funding agency and your member of parliament who wants to be reelected.

But basic research has a long tail, and a soft one, that despite its softness has considerable impact that is often neglected. At our recent workshop for science writers, Raymond Laflamme gave us two great lectures on quantum information technology, the theory and the applications. Normally if somebody starts talking about qubits and gates, my brain switches off instantly, but amazingly enough listening to Laflamme made it sound almost comprehensible.

Here is the slide that he used to motivate the relevance of basic research (full pdf here):

Note how the arrows in the circle gradually get smaller. A good illustration for the high-risk, high impact argument. Most of what we work on in basic research will never lead anywhere, but that which does changes our societies, rewards and refuels our curiousity, then initiates a new round in the circle.

Missing in this figure though is a direct link from understanding to social impact.

New scientific insights have historically had a major impact on the vision the thinkers of the day had for the ideal society and how it was supposed to work, and they still have. Knowledge about the workings of the universe have eroded the rationale behind monarchy, strong hierarchies in general, the influence of the church, and given rise to other forms of organizations that we may call enlightened today, but that will seem archaic a thousand years from now.

The variational principle, made popular in Leibnitz’ conclusion that we live in the “best of all possible worlds”, a world that must be “optimal” in some sense, has been hugely influential and eventually spun off the belief in self-organization, in the existence of an “invisible hand” that will lead societies to an optimal state, and that we better not try to outsmart. This belief is still wide-spread among today’s liberals, even though it obviously begs the questions whether what an unthinking universe optimizes is that what humans want.

The ongoing exploration of nature on large and small scales has fundamentally altered the way in which we perceive of us as special, now knowing that our solar system is but one among billions, many of which contain planets similar to our own. And the multiverse in all its multiple realizations is the maybe ultimate reduction of humanity to an accident, whereby it remains to be seen just how lucky this accident is.

That insights coming from fundamental research affect our societies long before and in many ways besides applications come along today is documented vividly by the Singularity believers who talk about the coming of artificial intelligence surpassing our own intelligence like Christians talk about the rapture. Unless you live in Silicon valley it's a fringe phenomenon, but it is vivid proof just how much ideas affect us.

Other recent developments that have been influential way beyond the scientific niches where they originated are chaos, instability, tipping points, complexity and systemic risk. And it seems to me that the awareness that uncertainty is an integral part of scientific knowledge is slowly spreading.

The connection between understanding and social impact is one you are part of every time you read a popular science piece and update your views about the world, the planet we inhabit, our place on it, and its place in the vastness of the universe. It doesn’t seem to mean all that much, all these little people with their little blogs and their little discussions, but multiply it by some hundred millions. How we think about our being part of nature affects how we organize our living together and our societies.

Downloading a Wikipedia entry of 300 kb through your home wireless: 0.01 Euro. Knowing that the universe expands and will forever continue to expand: Priceless.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.


  2. Bee:" Christians talk about the rupture."

    I might even be wrong, but I think the word you are looking for is "Rapture."

    I think Bee a good comparison here might be in relation to how one might see the quantum world as a biological process. This brings the quantum to a much more natural recognition in our quantum world?

    One might even accept the realization of powers of ten as a framework for nanotechnologies, and as a push toward biological realizations? Quantum computers?


  3. Yes, I should of opened up PDF first and had a look.:)

    In a sense you don't open up an institute(IQC) without realizing what is happening with the future and for what is coming?:)

  4. You must really love then the ancient Greek civilization Sabine for which only the upper half of the figure, with the direct link included, was applicable (and the arrows were more or less of qual width). The lower half of the circle left the Greeks completely indifferent.

  5. Giotis:

    Indeed, I think the old Greeks were much ahead of us in how they valued discussion and reason. It is no coincidence that much of today's progress goes back in some way to this intellectual spirit which, unfortunately, we seem to have lost. Don't get me wrong there, I am not saying applications are not important, I am just saying that this isn't the only thing that's important. Best,


  6. Plato: Thanks, I fixed that typo. I think most researchers are in for the curiosity, not for the rapture.

  7. /* ..Knowing that the universe expands and will forever continue to expand: Priceless... */

    We don't know it - it's just mainstream interpretation of the light scattering with density fluctuations at distance. What we only KNOW is, the light of distant objects gets reddish.

    That is to say: to know something is not the same like to believe in something. Currently we live in dark matter epoch of science, when our lives are affected more with findings, which physicists avoid to study, than with these actually researched ones (dark matter particles have character of space-time voids also).

  8. "
    The variational principle, made popular in Leibnitz’ conclusion that we live in the “best of all possible worlds”, a world that must be “optimal” in some sense, has been hugely influential and eventually spun off the belief in self-organization, in the existence of an “invisible hand” that will lead societies to an optimal state, and that we better not try to outsmart."

    The optimist believes that we live in the best of all worlds. The pessimist fears that this might be true. :-)

  9. The two Steves and Apple began as inventing and selling telephone digital (vs. analog) blue boxes. Grant funding "socially significant" research is, as Luboš Motl is fond of Czeching, "bullšit." The singular sustained driver of communications technology - money, content, volume - Officially does not exist,

    Almost everything around you was initially in garages, off-budget, stumbled upon, bootlegged, unlawfully vended. Homeland Severity, the War on Drugs, ATF, and the EPA assure us it will never happen again. Research is an efficiently managed process. Who cares if it works?

  10. Sabine,

    The Laflamme presentation slides were most impressive, a hymn to control of the technology and engineering.
    (I could not access the others.) A declaration, moreover, of an era which combines two frontier ideas, each perhaps not yet clearly defined - information and quanta. The flow is in the main optimistic, even in an indifferent universe or perhaps a region where thought is favored for basic research that we ask not so much if this is the best of possible worlds but "can it get any better than this" so we may become part of the picture provided we do not fall into the void of "so what" or "what is the point?" That part of social uncertainty too, and maybe the fear of what is in front of us as the recently unknown. There is little wrong with promoting a view that resists this as pondering the side effects is part of research too.
    So we ignore the lower half of the circle (and really in a mysterious spiral all the arrows may be seen as equal, that is whatever the deepest source of the universe and light). The next error might add the shadows of this cycle, that is the other 2 halves of the mirror. 3+1 halves again. So theory itself stands out to which research and social applications historically have followed and seemingly more rapidly.
    Now, if we give up learning which is to give up civilization, really, we first all lose the theory jobs to which the applied methods soon reach a diminishing return close to certain failure of application capital. But as in social engineering and what is efficiently held back from the people we see that the name of this game is convincing someone they are unworthy or ill, it works if in the myth they know no better.
    As to quantum information as an aid to computing (wifi and radio antennas by plasma is a great mix of analog and digital breakthroughs) It is not hard to see that some bits, quanta, qualia, (or my quasia) for something of brain to brain transfer of something borderline extrasensory... but in the physical world it is not hard to imagine if we build such a device we might find we need very little hardware to link to the mainframe. We are only beginning to see the possibilities of what we can do, and reasonably, taking over some control of our own growth and evolution and there is work for everyone even in a post economic era to which we should be long past fighting over crumbs.
    Meanwhile, like the isolated enclaves in Ireland the monks keep civilization alive until the rest of the world caught up, not so much today it seems academia- but those research institutions who think it may be a good investment, in name anyway. Your rest and attendance at the meetings makes your writing so much more clearer and powerful, despite the natural threat and the social manipulation of the air waves.

  11. I can't say that science change my life. I can instead to say that science saved my life. It helped me to overcome the worst days of my entire life. It gave me the balance I needed. A place where to lead my mind to get some rest

  12. "Scientists today think deeply rather than clearly. One must be sane to think clearly, but one can think deeply and be quite insane. Todays scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no basis in reality." – Nikola Tesla, 1932.
    I think, Tesla would be surprised today with progress, which physicists made in this direction
    Harry J. Lipkin: Who Ordered Theorists? "I have no patience with social scientists, historians, and philosophers who insist that the “scientific method” is doing experiments to check somebody’s theory. The  best physics I have known was done by experimenters who ignored theorists completely and used their own intuitions to explore new domains where no one had looked before. No theorists had told them where and how to look".

  13. If intellectual enlightenment is motivated by curiosity then I believe such enlightenment may be like a Rapture, not religiously spoken, but intellectually satisfying.

  14. My Goodness Alice!

    Simply assume a Nirvana state is a premonition and/or promise for all those striving for this state WITHOUT quantum physics.

    Simply assume a quantum superposition is a state where the premonition and promise mentioned in the first sentence remains just that - a premonition and promise.

    You know, like Democritus' atom PREMONITION.

    Nirvana practitioners in quantum superposition?


    This collapsed state in which our thoughts as well as our being is in makes science interesting.

    This collapsed state is the state I can explain best. At least as far as learning, memory and language are concerned.

    Quantum information dovetails into this with perfection.

    Bewildered Bob

  15. Bubbles rising upward from the ocean, as verified by experiment, can do work such as generating electricity,(an Israeli study way back). But rising too fast may cause body cells to rupture and the diver to hallucinate, thus the name "Raptures of the Deep".

  16. Paradigmatic principle like that spoken of in the previous thread regarding Einstein and his compass needle at a certain age, is more to the point here of something which insights the scientist?

    It's with her/him from a young age, and for some, they may say that is curiosity? But it's not. It is a deep insight as mentioned, that is sparked by the "anomalistic nature" that is revealed?

    Then all through that time to see that the framework for the understanding, produced by others on the road to include, the developments of the science that fit within the framework of discovery.

    You see, a child of nature sees more then what curiosity sells, as poking and prodding, as if to see, it is real?:)They definitively know that it is a mystery, and that they want to understand it.

    Even for me, an anomalistic product in nature that has not yet been defined by the others.


  17. Mistaking the expanding observable universe for the Universe. Pricey. Not to mention highly unscientific.

  18. Edgar,

    Sorry about that - the slides should all be public. It works fine for me, even when I log out from my account, so not sure what is going wrong. Can you try again? Best,


  19. "In Greece, Wise men speak..FOOLS DECIDE"
    -- Anacharsis

    Same thing going on in USA (& other countries). Science ignorant politicians making POOR decisions towards long-term STEM strategy. Fiscal Crisis in Washington DC

    [ due to Bankrupting/Depleting US Economy..useless wars traced to Political Corruption ]

    leading to damaging cuts to Science (across-the-board). Plus, Education is the FIRST sector to get CUT

    "Civilization is a Race between Education & DISASTER"
    -- HG Wells, 1931

    There is a Bigger Picture scenario of recent "decline", very deep & INSIDIOUS. See also warnings by Carl Sagan:

    “We’ve arranged a society on science and technology in which nobody understands anything about science and technology, and this combustible mixture of ignorance and power sooner or later is going to blow up in our faces. I mean, who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it.” – Carl Sagan

    “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” – Carl Sagan

  20. Unfortunately, there is a STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) Crisis in USA..also in England. I got confirmation by Dr xx (female theoretical physicist) from UK university. Forgot her name, couldn't find record of SUSY '06 talks to identify her.

    "STEM Crisis in USA is a Threat to National Security. Because DoD (Dept of Defense) can't find native Americans to work on military projects. Also, America cannot compete in the Global Economy, which is increasingly Science/Tech centric"
    -- Washington DC politician

    So.. America, why the F**K is your so-called "leadership" (Local, State, Federal) CUTTING Education & Science (also Technology, Engineering, Math)? Answer can be found at Dr Morgan Giddings blog, her brother is theoretical physicist at UCSB Physics/KITP (where Bee was post-doc at):

    She pins it on FAILED Leadership. Which is Science illiterate. Oof.

    "Recipe for DISASTER"

    She left her tenured position at U of North Carolina (she still didn't have job security..EXPLAIN THAT!!??), went to Boise State (scenic Idaho). She left there as well!! She's private consultant, helping others get Grant Funding. She's 1 of the MANY Acadmics leaving Academia in DISCUST.

    Bee & Dr Lubos Motl are young, idealistic, motivated Scientists wanting to "make a Difference". They have been "run out" of Academia:

    "Marketplace of Ideas, or why Academic System sucks"
    -- S. Hossenfelder, 2006 SciFoo talk

    "F***D UP University [ Harvard ]"
    -- L. Motl

    So, in terms of STEM, if Academia is FAILING..& Political Leadership is FAILING (Local, State, Federal):

    "We're SCREWED"

    Not just Scientists, but Constituency ("We the People, By the People, For the People")

    Basically, these diagrams ("Circle of Life") demonstrate the concept of Karma:

    "What goes around, COMES AROUND"

    We're just a few CRISES away from a potential annihilation of Humanity. I SH*T you NOT.

    The deadly Ebola virus has now spread to N. Africa, from Western Africa. United Nations has declared Ebola to be a world-wide threat. To solve it, requires a mature R&D program in Medicine/Biology/Immunology (Dr Morgan Giddings field, see above). But, if Science R&D is getting cut (threatening long-term), then Ebola potentially CANNOT be defeated.

    While the world is "erupting & unraveling" in terms of conflicts (wars), with TONS of $$ being spent on it. Then, it could be "back doored" by this pathogen of Ebola. WWI ended, due to the Influenza epidemic. The Bubonic Plague WIPED OUT 1/3 of Europe's population (before Modern Medicine).

    It's VERY POSSIBLE, that an "Andromeda Strain" scenario could "hit" Earth, while so-called "most intelligent species" Homo Sapiens are basically acting like "chimpanzees going on territorial based killing spree"

  21. Contrary to previous, yet relatively recent, times, fundamental science HAS STOPPED changing our lives, already since many decades - in any usual or “advanced” sense one wants to insert (as opposed to applied research, though also basically slowing down). And you know it pretty well, together with Laflamme who is “fantastic” especially as a liar about great successes and perspectives of “quantum computation” (proved impossible at least since 2002). This fundamental stagnation (and the resulting degradation) is just the key feature of the current situation and its qualitative difference from all previous periods since the beginning of modern science. Trying to hide this formally “sad” condition as if “for the sake of science” (in reality for the sake of one’s personal income and position) can only further harm and compromise science development.

    Precisely, there is no more of that link between (new) understanding and social factors, simply because there is no more of that new, truly scientific, consistent understanding, only futile abstract fantasies, where everything is permitted and postulated, up to supernatural mysteries, dominating dark matters and vast series of unobservable realities (hidden dimensions and parallel worlds). Even worse, science as a whole, any scientific knowledge is seriously compromised in the public interest and trust of science by such dominating, strongly imposed activity of mainstream establishment. So that even if other possibilities for new science development exist (they do), it is much more difficult now to realise them.

    I leave aside the nice appeal to wait for centuries for possible realisation of today’s (provably wrong) abstract fantasies, knowing the modern speed of change… What is much more important is that real solutions to real problems do exist, can be applied and further developed without limits - now, not in the forthcoming centuries (where science and civilisation will be unknown and without interest, within the now dominating tendency). But they naturally involve a qualitative change (towards much more consistent understanding) - and it is this greater change that the official system of “research” cannot accept in any case, for purely subjective reasons and selfish interests. Instead, it prefers to emphasize once again the achievements of those previous epochs, where the situation was completely different.

    In that way official science has become itself the major obstacle for further, urgently needed knowledge development. One must acknowledge that even massively detested politics is not as corrupt and self-destructive as this modern state of science. And certainly politics is far from being as important as science for the destiny of humanity, which is decided right now, in this modern critical bifurcation.

  22. Andrei,

    I take it your ideas of efficient complexity did not foresee this necessary negative moment in the emergence of something that will change our lives for the better. As empires and theories rise and fall blaming the gods of the day perhaps some of us need sentimental dreams or great books, some of us need to play monopoly to escape hard times of depression.
    But thanks for the null result. Show me one idea that could apply complexity to say gene code that would add something original to science that it becomes viable again?
    Have you not read a book, even one you did not like the ending but made no solid effort to change it?
    So you kill the messenger and the message?
    It is all in the soil you know, the deep loess deposits in Iowa from the volcanoes of long ago. The wormwood (Chernobyl) of your breadbasket will take long to recover both the contamination of politics and radiation.
    Those who cannot do science conspire against those who can at least teach it...As Pierce said - "by experience and experiment I mean the same thing" but what is authentic or inauthentic, chaff and wheat is the adolescence of a generation and nations. 1st Psalm where the music had the first poetry dedicated to the otherworldly.
    Perhaps instead of a sign saying THINK in your workplace you should put up one that says DREAM as well, and distinguish what is the lie and the dreamer who does not share your nightmare. Civilization also ends when we cease to dream but in the long run our social dementia can live longer than individuals in our species with that ignorance like condition.

  23. Bee,

    I wonder how steady a companion curiosity has been for human kind; perhaps it too has evolved. Apparently we lived a million years without learning to improve the edges of our rudimentary stone tools.

    Surely there was something there, an embryonic impulse to link precedent with consequent. Perhaps play behavior was our first experience of experimental result.

    In any case, Laflame’s graphic of the cycle of discovery might be missing an essential element. Curiosity must be fed. It has a real metabolism, its own particular thermodynamic equation. Whatever its germinal form, calories in must exceed calories out. Surely a baby’s first impulse is to put whatever it manages to pick up into its mouth.


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