Scientists 4.0

October 12, 2010 · 0 comments

by William Hooke, AMS Policy Program Director. From the AMS project, Living on the Real World

In the competitive world of computer software, smartphones, and other technology and devices, it’s all about version. Internet 1.0? Soooooooooo yesterday. Web 2.0 caused a big stir a few years ago. Web 3.0 already beckons. We’re now working on Windows 7 No, wait! It’s Windows 8! And yesterday’s 3G smartphone network is giving way to 4G. We’re constantly moving on.

Scientists periodically undergo similar upgrades, but with little or no fanfare. Let’s start to correct this….I’m a scientist version 3.0, but if you’re a scientist and reading this, chances are good you’re a scientist version 4.0.

Got your attention? Let’s peel this onion:

Scientist version 1.0 This generation comprises greats such as Empedocles (ca. 490-ca.430 BC), Aristotle (384-322 BC), Hippocrates (ca.460-ca.370BC), Galen (129-217[?]AD), and others. These men didn’t think of themselves as scientists. Instead, they saw themselves as philosophers, as thinkers. And the scientific method, the rules for thinking which we regard as commonplace today – based on evidence, logic, and rigor; developing testable hypotheses, subject to proof or disproof by experiment – were either under construction or lay still ahead. Peer review? Out of the question. It was therefore possible for Empedocles to suggest that all matter was composed of a blend of four basic elements – earth, water, air, and fire. Aristotle could assert that porcupines shoot their quills. Hippocrates could intuit a link between the environment and health even though at a loss to explain just why. Galen might decide (versus, say, determine) that the function of the heart was to heat the body. All of these notions were flawed at best, or failed to survive subsequent scrutiny. However each, even the theories about disease, contained (ahem!) a germ of truth. Each helped burnish the reputation of these men as among the foremost intellectuals of their time. They got us started down the road to the science of today. They will always remain giants.

Remember, as we’ve discussed in previous posts, that the pace of progress and social change was once much slower than it is today. So this state of affairs persisted for maybe 2000 years. Then along came

Scientist version 2.0 Just to make things concrete, suppose we name Galileo (1564-1642) and Newton (1643-1727) two of the first of this new breed. Their contributions? To elevate the idea of controlled experimental tests, quantitative measurement, meticulous observation – and to inject a little mathematics. They may have thought of science as an activity, but still thought of themselves more as natural philosophers. The term scientist probably didn’t come into widespread use until later in this period, the 19th century, say. Science was still seen less in terms of career or profession and more in terms of avocation. As we pointed out in an earlier post, even as recently as Darwin, scientists were either independently wealthy or forced to cobble together funding and resources for their work. These folks succeeded in picking up the pace of innovation quite a bit. Version 2.0 prevailed for a little more than 300 years.

Scientist version 3.0 This pretty much covers every scientist alive today who’s been out of graduate school for at least 5-10 years. The version was launched during and immediately following World War II, per yesterday’s post. Thanks to Vannevar Bush, scientists-version-3.0 have operated under the most unusual social contract ever envisioned, let alone implemented, by the mind of man: “Give us lots of money, and stand back – and someday you’ll be glad you did.”

What’s even more amazing is that scientists-version-3.0 have provided an extraordinary return on this investment. Society got a bargain! This scientist-upgrade provided the transistor, which made possible integrated circuits. These IC’s could in turn be racked and stacked to build up today’s high-speed computers. And those have equipped scientists-version-3.0 to tackle a raft of scientific problems that had previously defied analytical, closed-form mathematical solutions: modeling the economy and financial markets, or the weather and climate, or a nuclear explosion, or the chemical structure of complex organic molecules, and so on. Scientists-version-3.0 were able to work in big, sometimes, multi-disciplinary teams for years at a stretch.

But IC’s didn’t surface only in the biggest computers. They’ve been salted in every imaginable device all across the globe, in cars and airplanes, in cellphones and refrigerators, in clothing labels and greeting cards.

In short, the invention of the transistor, by itself, has probably paid for all the science that has ever been done, or ever will be done.[1] It has not only created entire industries, but every other single human endeavor is today predicated on it. And the transistor was only the first fruit. Advances in medicine have brought similar benefits. Advances in materials science? – ditto. Plato quotes Socrates as saying the unexamined life is not worth living. Advances in the social sciences have provided self-understanding of incalculable value.

But scientists-version-3.0 proved to be less-than-perfect. We (I told you I’m from that generation) revealed a few defects, missing from the earlier versions (not unlike Apple’s problems with the antenna in its latest generation of iPhones). Take, for example, that laissez-faire social contract. It has encouraged more than one scientist to remain unresponsive to the needs and concerns of the governments and tax-paying public who were footing the bill. And a substantial bill it is today. The cost of particle accelerators, fusion reactors, high-energy lasers, electron microscopes and other major equipment, as well as rather handsome salaries runs into the many tens of billions of dollars a year. This occasional insensitivity has left us open as a group to charges that we are elitist, arrogant, and perhaps worst of all – naive about why the public was paying for our science in the first place. Communication skills [especially listening!] and other social fine points? They’re only optional in version 3.0. You may have to pay extra. They’re not standard equipment on every unit.

With so much room for improvement, it’s not surprising that most of us who are scientists in this cohort are trying to remake ourselves as scientists version-3.2,  3.3, or even higher. But you can only get so far on this platform. That’s why, after only a half-century, the world is upgrading to

Scientist version 4.0. If you’re now in graduate school, or have been degreed only within the past few years, chances are you’re one of the alpha- or beta-test scientists of this upgrade. In addition to state-of-the-art technical capabilities, you have people skills built in, and you’re adding social-science and policy apps to the basic package continually. Interestingly, you’ve added a lot of these social-science attributes on your own. You may have availed yourself of opportunities at your university, but they weren’t required by your home department. Version 3.0 could work within teams of scientists, but as a scientist-version 4.0 you can work across the divide separating natural from social scientists, and separating scientists of all stripes from politicians and practitioners. Bravo!

But better make the most of your utility now – for two reasons. First, the world needs your help, and urgently! Second, you’ll have noted that the rate of obsolescence is picking up. You have about ten years before version 5.0 shows up.


[1] And was this a result of government largesse? Ironically, it came from Bell Laboratories, which for decades, by itself, represented fifty percent of the total private-sector-funded basic research. A remarkable legacy.