18.55, Thursday 17 Mar 2011

The Long Now Foundation was established in 01996 to creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.

Sticking a zero at the beginning of the year is ace. They're building a clock that'll last those 10,000 years. Two lovely interventions in culture! Yum.

They recently asked on their blog, Peak Science? First they point out a trend, identified by Samuel Arbesman (Harvard Medical School): By measuring the average size of discovered asteroids, mammalian species and chemical elements, he was able to show that, over the last few hundred years, these three very different scientific fields have been obeying the exact same trend: the size of what they discover has been getting smaller.

And follow it with this speculation: we've basically picked all the low-hanging fruit of scientific discovery -- all Galileo had to do was be the first person to look at Jupiter through a telescope and he discovered four moons. But, we've found all the moons now, and without those easy to reach facts, we’re now forced to pool more effort and resources into learning new things.

Interesting! But I disagree.

The kinds of science mentioned are what Deleuze and Guattari call "royal science" -- it's the science you get taught at school where the discipline is given capital letters: Physics, Chemistry, Computer Science. It's the science where there are institutions, journals, funding, prizes, PhDs, and a division between those who are Scientists and the rest of society. It's the science you can get a qualification in, and the science you can fail in.

It happens that sciences start their lives somewhat differently -- biology emerged from hobbyist Victorian men and women first collecting, and then taxonomising animals and plants. Electricity was a hobbyist's occupation before it was formalised: the same journal would speak about a lecture, a new patent, an experiment with lightbulbs, and who had been hit by lightning that month. Sciences don't look like sciences to begin with. You can't "fail" in collecting examples of finches.

So, my first question: (1) where are the hobbies?

Of course, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, that particle accelerator loop 27 kilometres around, can't be a hobby -- it's too big and too expensive. But it's at the final "white dwarf" end of scientific evolution. It's way past its lively period of heady, explosive growth and illumination. Science goes through stages: first you collect (write down many examples), then you have a period of making taxonomies and hypotheses (a period of crazy invention and fights and predictions), and then you settle on a reductionist model and (a) the science turns into technology (lasers and CD players), and (b) you look for experiments to disrupt the model to start over again (CERN).

I simplify. But, y'know.

Collecting is easy. But it's not really seen as science (though it's essential). It's a an incidental activity, or a hobby, often by people who are fans of science, or philosophy, or some other similar discipline preoccupied with causality and structure (where it is also accompanied by cataloging and rule-making).

So my second question is (2) where are people collecting?

Answer my two questions, and we'll find new proto-sciences, science nurseries full of low-hanging fruit.

And here are some examples that pop immediately to mind:

  • PageRank, by Google, their form of analysing the web, is right at the beginning of a new science. As a way of understanding networks, it was ripe for the picking - Page and Brin just had to do it! - and we've still not looked at the higher-level molecules in the structure of the web. Links and pages are the fundamental particles. But imagine if the attention given to string theory was given to networks in the web: what evolving manifolds might we find? What 11-dimensional rules?
  • Stephen Wolfram's work with cellular automata. Algorithms are not expensive, and don't have to be examined by experts. So many of us could examine simple sets of rules that evolve, and find new interesting creatures in Conway's Game of Life. It's not hard, there's just a lot to territory to explore. So be explorers!
  • "Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved" by Shulgin. An exploration of psychedelic compounds. They act so differently. #125: QUALITATIVE COMMENTS: (with 35 mg) There was a vague awareness of something all afternoon, something that might be called a thinness. There is a universe of internal life to catalogue before we can start drawing architectures, that super-complex muddy hinterland between consciousness and wet chemicals.
  • Mandelbrot and the world of fractals. There are shapes and rules in fractals which are as wide-ranging and fundamental as circles and rectangles. We see the networks of neurons in the brain reflected in the super-filaments of galactic superclusters that braid the known universe, and reflected again in the patterns that emerge at the end of a game of Go. Why are these similar? Can looking inward at one educate us about looking up at another? Perhaps. But we need to collect and taxonomise first, to learn how to describe new shapes. We're maybe 50 years off a breakthrough here, I guess, and Mandelbrot is our Galileo: Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.
  • Small group dynamics and psychiatry. The experiments made on subjective experience, the social world, and the brain are easy (there are home brain imaging kits), and depend more on constructing a language for discussion (as Freud did) and data than slicing the brain up into tiny slices. There is a cosmos, a natural philosophy, of subjective experience to be described, and we'll need to make a lot of mistakes and try all kinds of alchemy before we attain the chemistry - or its equivalent - to speak about it, even to the level of literacy we have speaking about, say, modern art.
  • Kevin Kelly's Computational X -- Computational Medicine, Computational Linguistics, Computational Architecture, and more: Inventing materials, forms, structures that cannot be made with concrete and glass. Generate endless varieties of one form, with ease. There must be a commonality between these areas, if they are tractable to investigation with the same techniques. So how do we describe it? First, we need the stuff to describe. We all have computers. As hobbyists, let's apply computation to everything! Ah, we are doing that. So carry on, and look for abstract bridges and common shapes! It's a proto-science. A proto proto-science.

There are a billion low hanging fruits. We don't recognise these worlds as capital-S Science because they're not what we've been taught to see. Get out your telescope that you don't recognise as a telescope, and you'll see moons and Jupiters that have never before been spied.