October 29, 2012

Scientists on trial

Last week my newsfeed blew up with reactions to the conviction of seven scientists for manslaughter. As I wrote about last summer, these scientists failed to predict an earthquake in Italy. Many people, especially my scientist friends, see this as an attack on science and scientists who, it seems from this perspective, should be let alone to do their work without political interference or, worse yet, fear of conviction. But as you might expect, I argue that we need to look at the social side of science. Scientists don't operate in a political vacuum  and as we see here, there are very real consequences from the muddled interaction between scientists and policy-makers. To re-paraphrase Sheila Jasanoff, "Scientists have become arrogant, and have not explained to the people why they deserve support... The Enlightenment was not a historical event. It is a process, a mission, a continuous duty to explain yourself.”

For another interesting perspective, check out Dan Sarewitz writing for CSPO's new blog, "As We Now Think."

October 2, 2012

The Philosopher's Stone: musings on scientific ideas and breakthroughs

Back in the day, alchemists strived to turn lead into gold. Today, the modern equivalent might be engineering some kind of "bug that eats carbon dioxide and poops oil" (to paraphrase a lecturer I heard).

What are some examples of other "philosopher's stone" type quests in science-- where scientists are actively trying to produce something but it requires some fundamental leaps in either technology or scientific knowledge? I'm looking for either historical examples or current examples of projects that were either reached or are still elusive. I'm talking about pie-in-the-sky dreams of scientists; the sorts of things that shape research paradigms. But I think "rogue" ideas (like cold fusion?) might also be a good example.

My questions are:
  1. To what extent have concerted efforts towards fundamental breakthroughs been successful? (i.e. the Manhattan Project, or IRRI's "Miracle Rice")
  2. Is there a "shelf life" of projects of this type? (i.e. a typical time span when ideas are adopted and then either developed or abandoned)
  3. What causes a project like this to be abandoned?

I was thinking about this because the more I learn about the history of science, the more I see that ideas we use in modern conceptions of technological innovation have deep historical roots. For example, the modern quest for advances in evo-devo traces back to (at least) the early 18th century.