Saturday, March 18, 2006

Future of science

EDGE: SPECULATIONS ON THE FUTURE OF SCIENCE By Kevin Kelly Before chancing his arm on what will happen in the future, Kelly looked at how scientific study has developed over time. Fascinating to note the temporal spread of the first three entries, then an intense cluster over the 100 years of the age of enlightenment. Then not a lot else until modern times. The world must have been more focused on political and technological upheavals than scientific ones in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, if you agree with Kelly's analysis. After all, there was no technical advance, such as the invention of electricity, preventing the concept of falsifiability being articulated 250 years earlier than it was, taking Kelly's timeline at face value. 2000 BC — First text indexes 200 BC — Cataloged library (at Alexandria) 1000 AD — Collaborative encyclopedia 1590 — Controlled experiment (Roger Bacon) 1600 — Laboratory 1609 — Telescopes and microscopes 1650 — Society of experts 1665 — Repeatability (Robert Boyle) 1665 — Scholarly journals 1675 — Peer review 1687 — Hypothesis/prediction (Isaac Newton) 1920 — Falsifiability (Karl Popper) 1926 — Randomized design (Ronald Fisher) 1937 — Controlled placebo 1946 — Computer simulation 1950 — Double blind experiment 1962 — Study of scientific method (Thomas Kuhn) Kelly's five projections for the next 100 years of scientific study can be read at the link above. His first point seems very conservative, that there will be more change in the next 50 years than there was in the past 400. Ten years is more likely than 50, if you ask me. Next he says that the next century will be the century of biology. Certainly the bioinformatical challenges are laid out before us: if the standardisation of measurement (annotation)and the necessary large-scale collaboration between groups of scientists happen, I think he's probably going to be right on that one. There turned out to be nothing simple that could be said when the human genome was sequenced: no amazing drugs have yet been predicted and developed by use of genomics , and post-translational modifications between genome and phenotype serve to maintain the mystery of the relationship between DNA sequence and and protein function. (Who remembers when people thought that knowing the amino-acid sequence of a protein would allow us to predict its three-dimensional structure?). Kelly's third point, that computers will lead the way, goes with the second (above). We won't have advances in biology without computation: powerful, intelligent and novel types, at that. Computing is and will be to biology what Google was and is to search. (But there is still just as much scope as there ever was for curiosity-driven research to yield wonderful breakthroughs, in all fields of natural science. Kelly does not allude to this, but I believe it will be a large factor in the future, in harness with intelligently driven and novel types of informatic analyses.) I heard David Lipman, head of the US National Library of Biomedicine, give a talk the other week about how scientists can (but tend not to) use the data available to them in the Medline database to make discoveries -- this is a small example of the kind of computer-enabled advance Kelly is talking about. I kept meaning to post about it but never got round to it. Timo Hannay has now done so, far better than I could have done. Kelly goes on to speculate about "wikiscience" and how science will create new levels of meaning via the power of the Internet. That's all getting a bit beyond me: read his essay.