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Author Topic: Why is scientific effort wasted on non-essential discoveries?  (Read 3907 times)

Offline thedoc

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Jim Evans  asked the Naked Scientists:
   
Hi Chris,

with so many critical problems to solve why do we waste the "best" brains re inventing vacuum cleaners???

I have a VAX from 1990 that works great and I may never need to buy another.(So there is no problem with them.)

so why re invent them???

get all the scientist working on problems that need solving and not wasting time testing all the new stuff stuff we don't need

list of useless inventions

1. computer games
2. the Dyson
3. space travel for humans
4. mobile phone apps
5. hybrid cars
6. satellite TV
7. 3D TV
8. cosmetic surgery for non medical reasons

reasign all the scientists to invent

1. cures for malaria and all other diseases
2. fix for global warming
3. cure the dependancy on fossil fuels
4. fix for population growth
5. adequate drinking water supplies
6. adequate supples of hydrogen
7. small scale space travel device the size of a proton
8. something to shut my misses up


don't bother with human space travel as we are not going anywhere

Jim


What do you think?
« Last Edit: 23/08/2012 20:30:02 by _system »


 

Offline Bored chemist

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Jim,
The simple answer is that you don't get to choose what's important (and nor do I).
 A spell checking 'phone app could be very useful for some people.
This planet isn't going to last forever: our descendants can leave or they can all die here (in about 5,000,000,000 years).

Also, two of your ideas seem contradictory
" hybrid cars" are useless, but you want to "cure the dependancy on fossil fuels".
And, since a "small scale space travel device the size of a proton " is intrinsically impossible, it would be even more of a waste of time than any of the "useless" inventions you listed.
 

Offline damocles

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Jim,

I suspect that you do not fully understand what science is. In essence science is an inquiry into the way that nature works. Inventions and technologies often arise from science, but the process of working out how to exploit what we discover about nature is quite a separate pursuit -- technology and engineering. Because "science" is so poorly understood (or misunderstood) in the community, we often use "pure science" to describe the exploration aspects, and "applied science" to describe exploitation aspects.

To take an example: science was involved in the discovery that you could take ordinary silicon, which is a fairly good conductor of electricity, and refine it to extreme purity and it will hardly conduct electricity at all, and then add a tiny amount of arsenic impurity and it will conduct or not depending on other factors in its electrical environment. The fact that these experiments were done at all depended on 19th century scientific research that led in 1869-71 to the Periodic Law and the Periodic Table of Elements which provided our knowledge of how various different elements were related. A rare element called germanium had been found in the 1950s to have similar unusual electrical properties, and a very useful electronic technology had built up around germanium. The Periodic Law told scientists to expect that silicon was likely to behave in a way similar to germanium, with differences that were almost predictable.
But it was the engineers and technologists (or "applied scientists", if you want) who then went about the business of how to make use of the science to develop the technologies that have led to the modern computer and communications revolution. It was initially based on analogues to the germanium technology, but it was soon going a very long way further.

So, with a quick look at the issues that you maintain scientists "should" be working on:
(1) cure for malaria and other diseases -- many scientists are working on this one
(2) fix for global warming  -- the "fix" is already part of our scientific knowledge base. We need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere. How to do so is no longer science nor technology, but politics and social theory.
(3) cure the dependency on fossil fuels -- once again we know the cure, and many applied scientists are working on the development of alternative energy technologies. But the cure also involves short term pain, and no government in a democracy is in a position to take the necessary steps without losing office.
(4) fix for population growth -- the science is well-known. The cure is once again very much in the realm of politics and social theory.
(5) adequate drinking water supplies -- the science is well known. The infrastructure is expensive. Politics once more.
(6) adequate supplies of hydrogen -- the "hydrogen economy" is a controversial topic, and to some extent a bit of a red herring.
(7) small scale space travel device -- science has some wonderful achievements, but it cannot be expected to find a practical technology for every conceivable idea. Science does, in fact, tell us that this one is an impossibility, unless you are simply wanting to send protons to another planet.
(8) domestic peace -- science, once again, has a few solutions for this one. Implementation is a matter of domestic politics and social theory.

Of your "useless inventions" 1,4,6, and 7 are all "spin-offs" from the immensely useful communications revolution, and are not things that scientists have been working on anyway. Computer games are not "invented" but "authored" and "developed" by teams of people who are not scientists. Mobile phone apps are similarly creative ideas for addressing particular needs -- often needs that nobody has. They are developed by people who are not scientists. Satellite TV is simply taking up part of an enormously valuable satellite communications network for mass media. It helps provide instant "news" from around the globe for a very large part of the world's population, and helps to counter news "filtering" -- though not nearly as effectively as the internet because it is in the hands of a very few very large corporations.
 

Offline CliffordK

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There certainly are cures for things like population growth.
Firing squads are particularly effective, but not necessarily appreciated by the people looking down the barrel.

Satellite TV would be an offshoot from building a satellite based global communication grid (phones, TV, NEWS, etc).  Potentially we could do everything hard-wired, but the satellites may in fact be cheaper than stringing wires everywhere, and potentially much easier to upgrade.  Likewise, my mother does not have Cable TV available at her house, but does have satellite TV available. 

You might also think of what is economically viable.  Nobody would have invested in launching communication satellites unless they were economically viable.

One may think that deep space astronomy may not be particularly useful, but we are a curious species, and always want to know what is out there, or how things work.  I have troubles envisioning what the hunt for life on Mars will bring to Earth.  But, finding unique DNA from a distant planet could potentially be very important for future humanity.  And, building "Earth 2.0" might just save humanity from a calamity such as what befell the dinosaurs.

Basic science may not be economically viable at the time the research is being conducted, and thus a lot of basic science research is done under government grants.  Think, for example, the structure of proteins and DNA puzzled scientists for eons.  Then Watson and Crick came up with the Double Helix in 1953.  It really wouldn't be much use to anybody at that time as we couldn't even read "the code".  50 or 60 years later, we not only are able to read the code, we can now list the entire human genome, and associate most of the DNA with the actual genes.  We have been able to modify genes, and insert genes across species.  Some people are suspicious about genetically modified food.  However, things like human recombinant insulin has significantly improved the safety of insulin for diabetics.  None of this would have been possible had Watson & Crick (and others) not first hunted for the genetic code in our cells.
 

Offline evan_au

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The problem with just working on the scientific "winners", and shutting down the "losers" is that nobody can tell which is which until after the research is done. Sometimes long after the research is done (think a decade or more).

What we are moving towards is making research more findable (with search engines), and making more research papers publicly available (by using different payment & funding models & media for publications).

The 20 year old VAX computer is good for a certain class of problems - but it is energy-hungry, slow, and the storage is very limited by modern standards. In 20 years, Moore's law predicts about a 1000-fold improvement in computer technology. The VAX doesn't have nearly enough processing power to act as a mobile phone, and would flatten the battery instantly.

It also can't do a lot of things on either list of applications, like climate modeling, or designing & testing medications. But modern computers can contribute to these endeavors (and your wife may actually benefit from having a smart phone...).
 

Offline Lmnre

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Jim, this is an excellent observation, and one that everyone can use in their own lives. Why does an individual waste the time, effort and money on the non-important things in their lives? Look at all the things people do that don't solve any problems.
  • Why listen to music, whistle, sing songs, play an instrument, attend concerts, etc?
  • Why watch sitcoms, tell jokes, or encourage a sense of humor?
  • Why eat anything that is unhealthy (birthday cake, soda, candy, gum, etc)?
  • Why talk about the weather (talking about the weather has never changed it)?
  • Why go on a vacation (if you need a rest, then stay home and sleep in)?
  • Why take photos (you'll only grieve if you lose your photo albums if your house burns down, etc)?
  • Why be buried or cremated (just throw us on the compost pile)?
  • Why buy different color/style clothes, eyeglasses, houses, cars, etc (they all work the same anyway)?
  • Why learn a different language while growing up (we should all speak one language)?
  • Why get a particular style haircut or comb/brush/spray/gel your hair (when a buzz cut works fine for everyone)?
  • Why choose baby names (instead, simply open a baby name book and select one at random)?
The answer is that, even as individuals, we don't spend all our time, effort and money on only those items, services and activities that are productive and progressive. We are, at the individual level, as inefficient at production and progress as we are at the collective level. We're human.
 

Offline CliffordK

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  • Why be buried or cremated (just throw us on the compost pile)?
Part of the burial ritual is hygiene.  Human diseases must be inactivated.  But certainly there are other ways to do it other than designating a plot of land to belong to a person for all of eternity.

But, I agree that we all crave variety.

You might also ask for the benefits of generalism vs specialism.  Of course, sometimes it is good to see the "big picture".  Research in one field may turn out to be beneficial to something entirely unexpected.
 

Offline techmind

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Short answer, I'm afraid, is that even us scientists have to pay the bills.

I work for a sci/tech consultancy in my day job, and although I spend some of my time working on diagnostic and surgical tools - and would like to spend more time working on real "cutting edge" stuff ... the reality is that there's far more customers with money to spend on improved air fresheners, deodorants, kitchen appliances, keeping-beer-cold devices, home brewing kits, remote-control showers etc etc. Unless we can attract more customers willing to pay us to work on really cool stuff, we have to take what comes. That said, working on a diverse range of products -including the relatively mundane- does allow you to port ideas and techniques from one industry or business to another, which is helpful in innovation.

In other words, you need to get society and/or other enterprises and investors to provide the financial resources to enable scientists to be able to pursue your "more worthy" lines of investigation.

Also as others have said, with more fundamental research you can't really predict where it'll lead - for instance LEDs have developed in leaps and bounds in the past 30 years. Not only are they beginning to make inroads into energy-efficient lighting, they're also continually finding new applications in scientific, medical, diagnostic, surgical and theraputic devices.
 

Offline graham.d

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I really wanted to do astrophysics but ended up in the semiconductor industry. Of course I get paid well doing this and, to be fair, it is more directly beneficial to the world than astrophysics. However I will be retiring soon. The trouble is, with not being involved since about the time Pulsars were discovered, I am way behind the times and find the theoretical side somewhat challenging. And on the practical side, I don't think anyone is going to lend me a radio telescope :-) Suggestions welcome :-)
 

Offline William McCormick

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The country is being choked to death, by a shortage of money. Make money tight and people go with what sells. It is a form of suicide. Like not having enough money to take a nice vacation, or buy a nice boat, hot air balloon or plane, so you go out and drink or get stoned. Has nothing to do with reality. Because God knows money does grow on flax plants. And those printed pieces of paper do buy gold, and even if the government were only collecting a penny tax each time a dollar changed hands, the paper, the money will all end up back in the houses hands, the governments hands. No matter how much gold they buy or sell. It is total madness we have agreed to once again. We are the idiots for taking it.

The people in charge creating poverty are right to treat us like a band of cowardly, mentally disturbed losers. Because in the words of our American founding father. "When men become weak and fit for a master it matters not from what quarter he comes" We are so sick so deranged so sheepish that we need to be slapped again and again, until we are not afraid of the pain of our egos being bruised. Until we get up and grab the hand that is slapping us and put it to work.

So we are just like ants in a science ant farm, our ability is limited by the big jerk in control of our food, and in control of the stopper that keeps us in the ant farm. We could be on other planets right now colonizing them. But most people are just after quick gains and an easy ride. You will not get anything that way, you will never have anything you really want that way. So we will just be treated like the fools we are until we get smart/brave.
 
                      Sincerely,

                            William McCormick

 

Offline CliffordK

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The impact of government spending on society is complex.

So, $2.5 Billion dollars was spent on the Curiosity Rover. 
That money in turn paid hundreds, or thousands of people's wages, research grants, and etc.

These people then pay taxes, employ others, help with education, buy stuff such as food (which pays farmers) and etc.

And, when you divide $2.5 Billion by the 300 Million people in the USA, one gets less than $10 per person.  Everything still adds up, but perhaps real discovery on Mars is worth the price of a movie ticket.
 

Offline William McCormick

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The impact of government spending on society is complex.

So, $2.5 Billion dollars was spent on the Curiosity Rover. 
That money in turn paid hundreds, or thousands of people's wages, research grants, and etc.

These people then pay taxes, employ others, help with education, buy stuff such as food (which pays farmers) and etc.

And, when you divide $2.5 Billion by the 300 Million people in the USA, one gets less than $10 per person.  Everything still adds up, but perhaps real discovery on Mars is worth the price of a movie ticket.

My life is like watching a bad movie repeat again and again, but now it is playing in slow motion. I don't know if I can wait for the next horrid scene, haha.

The space program in the sixties, started projects that never would have gotten underway without it. Yet, they blamed poverty on their own misunderstanding of how money injected into the system will require, another injection of money, or it will create poverty.

If you have an idling motor, and you are supplying it with a freshly made batch of fuel, and you have a gallon reserve fuel. And you decide to bring five gallons of fuel to the motor and rev it up. You had better be prepared very quickly to resupply the motor wih a lot more fuel. Because now it is drawing more then your normal supply of fuel can deliver, to keep it revving high. That is all that happened, they revved America up and then didn't supply her with enough fuel. America stalled and space was to blame.

I haven't been a fan of NASA because they kept quite about everything. And just took what they could get. Don't get me wrong even Grumman was a little too quite for my taste. But Grumman used to be truthful about technology and did not deny technology back in her day. While NASA did. NASA would have been shut down like a whore house next to church if they had, I just thought they should have.


                      Sincerely,

                            William McCormick
 

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