There’s a cycle to scientific discovery and its integration into every day life, similar to The Water Cycle. I was going to wait to post this until I had made up a nice graphic, but I have no idea when I’d get to it.
Those that wish to build the future must stand on the shoulders of giants. There is a common myth that real breakthroughs will somehow come from those who are innocent of preconceptions and thus find things others aren’t even aware to look for. I don’t buy it, at least not in most scientific fields at this point in history.
There will probably be exceptions that prove the rule, but even the most famous example I can think of is misrepresented. The problems he solved were not considered unsolvable, and one of the two was being solved by someone else around the same time. The student was a PhD candidate, hardly a tabula rasa.
The Incubation Period for our society is getting longer, and this is not a coincidence. Our total amassed knowledge is growing at an incredible rate, and fully understanding just one vertical slice of it now takes many years.
To push the frontiers of knowledge requires that understanding, if for no other reason than to avoid duplication of effort. Can you imagine how awful it would be to dedicate your life to studying something, make a big discovery, and find that others had already worked that out 50 years ago? Oy.
This is the part most people associate with science. Once you know what’s known, you figure out the unknown and try to turn a chunk of it into new known. This is where the Scientific Method comes into play, the unknown is a giant puzzle and solving the remaining pieces is very hard, it takes time and dedication to make a hypothesis, test it, prove yourself wrong, and repeat. Over and over. Until you can’t prove yourself wrong, and you might be a step closer to really solving that piece.
That’s what it is about, not the sexy big discoveries that get lots of press, but the steady chiseling away of the unknown and refining it into Grade A Known.
You’ll notice that up until this point in the cycle we’re mostly talking about the education system, and in Universities this full range is carried out. That’s part of the reason there’s a mini-cycle here, these new discoveries can be quickly folded back into the curriculum (normally at the graduate level).
Here is the process of turning the discovery into something useful. Turning Unknown into Known is a wonderful thing but it doesn’t put food on the table, a roof over your head, or gigabytes into your RAM. Someone needs to take the new information, combine it with pieces of previously known and built things, and create inventions.
The primary example of this is electricity. It had been known in static form by the ancients, and of course Benjamin Franklin famously figured out that lightning was electrical. But it wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that useful inventions were created that took advantage of all the new knowledge. People are still working on improving and creating new inventions based on it today.
Even then, light and electrical power were not in everyone’s hand the instant the inventions were made, nor at the discovery of electricity and its properties. The logistics of getting the inventions into the hands and lives of everyday people and adapting those inventions to be relevant to more people is critical to the cycle.
Today we divide the planet largely into those areas which have more distribution of the results of scientific progress (first world) versus those that have less (second and third world). Plumbing has been known for millennia, many medicines for a century or two, electricity for a century, automobiles for about the same, computers for more than half a century… but in none of those cases can you say that the distribution of inventions based on that knowledge is complete.
The speed of distribution of new inventions is increasing, at least in the parts of the world where the logistical infrastructure is there to enable it. One of the very interesting phenomena of the past decade has been the proliferation of mobile phones in areas of the world were twisted pair phone service was spotty, poor, or non-existent. That’s been called a “technology leapfrog”, where entire technology generations are skipped for newer ones that not only work better, but are easier and cheaper to deploy.
There’s another mini-cycle here between Invention and Distribution. As early inventions are created and put in front of the public, the feedback from trying to sell them cycles back into the invention process, where changes and improvements are made for another try at distribution.
The last part of the cycle is the integration of the new knowledge and inventions into the every day lives of the people who use them. They start as new and novel with early adopters, and eventually become a part of the fabric of the culture. I’ll use mobile phones as the example for this one as well, since it is pretty obvious. In the 1980s, few people had them and they were as big as bricks. Many people couldn’t think of a good reason anyone would ever want one.
Now it is odd to find someone who doesn’t own one, and it is becoming more and more usual to find people who no longer have landlines. They’ve gone from a brand new technology to part of society, and now everything that comes after does so within the context of a society where mobile phones are pervasive.
More importantly to the cycle, though, the fact that such things are commonplace and understood, or at least accepted, means that future Incubation (education) is done with access to better and more pervasive tools, technologies, and inventions, which then allows a more efficient way to gain new Discoveries.
After all, if I live in a world where I can get to most places on the planet within a day, I can communicate with a large portion of the world’s population in realtime, I have easy access to clean, safe drinking water and quality food… how can I not expect us to be able to do anything we set our minds to accomplish?
It is easy to be complacent about the state of the cycle you participate in, and to think that the mini-cycles are a good workaround for the problems we face in going full circle. I think the most useful discoveries are the ones that go productively through the entire cycle. They’re part of our core education, part of what every scientist builds on regardless of their field, and one of the many tools available for inventors.
The biggest weakness we have today is in Distribution, logistics being the primary bottleneck in the cycle. The education/research system has big flaws, but overall it works and has produced incredible advances. The invention/distribution system varies more, some fields (especially those with lower barriers to entry for startup businesses, think internet) do this amazingly well, others have made very little progress relatively speaking.
Even in the best cases, logistical barriers are keeping a large percentage of the world’s population from enjoying the benefits. Do they have computers? Electricity? Are they subsistence farming and have far more important concerns on their mind day to day?
A focus on Distribution as a means for making the scientific discovery cycle more efficient and productive can only get more of humanity involved as producers and consumers of scientific progress, feeding back into the cycle and helping everyone.