Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Science - The Gap

The other day I had a nice conversation with a fellow physics graduate. A rare experience, and always nice. Jane, the science graduate in question, had studied mathematics and physics. When I asked what her speciality was (optics, dynamics, particle, etc.) she replied "teaching". But then explained that her training wasn't intended for her to teach science to students. It is instead intended to teach science to science teachers.

So what? Well in case you were unaware modern science has progressed to a level that no individual can study and learn it all. No group of individuals can do so. And thus we're left with a gaping hole between the experts at the cutting edge the whole rest of society.

If you were to believe Hollywood, you might think that genius scientists still come up with ground breaking discoveries. Dr. Emmett Brown from "Back to the Future" is a great example. The crazy physicist in his lab coat, wild hair everywhere, and brains too big to function normally in society. In reality, major breakthroughs are collaborations of work. Hundreds of people work for years on a project. And if a breakthrough comes, the lead researcher or project director will be credited by name for the discovery. But in reality it would take that person and dozens more from their team to fully document, analyse, and publish the work.

Indeed, Jane hoped to be the person who would learn from those scientists what it is they have done or learned. Then she in turn would relay that knowledge (at a lower level) to the people who need to teach it, who in turn relay it to students.

Each step along the way the interface "dumbs down" the information a bit. Making it digestible for a larger and larger audience. But also making it less useful.

The end result is that each of us is relying every day on technologies we don't understand. Even worse, these are things that no one you know understands. No individual could build from scratch the computer you're reading this on. Even just the millions of lines of software on your computer are beyond any one person's abilities.

The point? The point I'm hoping to make is that this situation should be respected. It should scare more people than it does. And yet it seems to go virtually unnoticed.

Society seems to be teetering high upon a pedestal it has made for itself. Held up by composite materials, high-speed data connections, lasers, silicon wafers, and super glue.

Is anyone else worried?


quilly said...

Yeah -- a guy named Jim who I attend church with. He mentioned this just the other day.

I am not too worried for me, because as much as I love my tech, I am not tech reliant. Today's kids though seriously scare me. They aren't interested in knowledge, and they don't know about life sans tech. Not only that, thanks to those skate shoes, they are soon going to forget how to walk!

J. D. said...

As much as I love technology,(It keeps me in touch with far away loved ones) I'm fearful of high level technology that controls the lives of us little people. The brainiacs control our banking, monitor our taxes, put pictures and gossip about others on the net without concern for reputations, change credit ratings at the flip of a switch...and I feel, that is nothing compaired to the things we don't know about. If flaws show up in these obvious things, we better pray that the brain powers that be, although imperfect humans, are not feeling ill or having a bad hair day when senitive projects are needed to save lives. That involves medical and military projects, with huge consequences for everyone. Technology, I believe, truly controls us all NOW.

Has anyone thought to put a MORALS CLAUSE in amongst all those "1"s and "0"s? Who takes RESPONSIBILITY? You know as well as I do....NO ONE. (Case in point, Enron et al)

Hey...remember in Terminator 2, the inventor of the computer chip that eventually started the war between technology and humans DID take responsibility for the future implications of his work. WOW! That's how we know it was a fairy tale............J.D.

J. D. said...

The short answer...YES!.....J.D.

Doug said...

I'm not worried about the gap between those who understand science and those who don't, but I have to say I'm pretty amused by this couplet :"The other day I had a nice conversation with a fellow physics graduate. A rare experience"

IDiveAtNight said...

Quilly: My employment is tech dependant, but my life isn't. I can enjoy a beer, a bike ride, or friends without the use of tech. But I'll admit my cell phone makes getting together with friends a LOT easier.

Mom: Thanks for the post!

Doug: What? Outside the library I don't meet a lot of physicists in my day to day life. What was extra special, I don't meet many tall blonde female Norwegian physicists!