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.

1 comment:

  1. Two quick comments - first, I suspect the Department of Defense's history is rich with examples of accomplishing goals that seemed pie-in-the-sky at the time of their proposal. I'm not super familiar with DOD as a whole but DARPA has been fairly successful in pushing towards various ambitious goals, see, ex. www.darpa.mil/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=2553

    Second, it's interesting to note that Secretary of Energy Chu, moreso than his predecessors, is very outspoken about the usefulness of this sort of model, perhaps in part inspired by his time at Bell Labs. The Sunshot Initiative (aimed at making solar cost-competitive by 2017, named after the Moonshot) and other emerging initiatives, plus ARPA-E's programs, are oriented towards accelerating energy innovation via setting specific techno-economic goals and focusing basic science and engineering research on them. So, not sure about the history of such efforts, but this sort of model/ideal definitely influences contemporary science policy...


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