Monday, April 2, 2012

Pushing the Boundaries of Science Like Pushing a Vacuum

As far as division of labour around the house goes, my wife and I each have our own respective duties, and one of mine is vacuuming the house.  I kind of enjoy mindless activities like this one, because it allows me to shut off my brain for the better part of an hour.  But with the mind unfocused, it is at once free to wander; I find that I do some of my deepest thinking while under the hypnotic trance of the vacuum's purr.

The other day, while seeking out lose dirt and dust-bunnies with my trusty electrolux, my mind began to wander.  I began to see clear parallels between my search for dust around the house and mankind's pursuit of science in general.  Before I go any further, let me assure you that I realize that only one of these two endeavours is of great importance, and it is not the one that involves me pulling out the couch, cleaning behind it, and pushing it back.

Dust around the house tends to accumulate in the places we encounter the least.  Sections of the home in plain sight are relatively free of such particles, as these areas are well-traveled.  The dust gets displaced to a new spot due to the relative motion of air around it.  If this new spot also sees regular activity, the dust will inevitably move yet again.  It will only settle permanently in a quiet, unused spot within the room (usually behind something heavy, to the vacuumer's chagrin).  The phenomenon is much like snow on a high-traffic ski slope, which tends to build up on the two outer edges.

How then is vacuuming like scientific advancement?  Imagine that each piece of dust to be collected is like a scientific mystery to be solved.  Much like the loose dirt that we wish to hoover, the vast majority of the mysteries associated with the physical world are well-hidden - that is, unless we search for them explicitly, we will not even know that they exist.

Each room within the house may be thought of as a scientific pillar, each with its own particular sort of unsolved mysteries waiting to be uncovered.  We could have physics in the family room, chemistry in the kitchen, biology in the bathroom, and so on.

In the early going of modern science, the house was a complete mess throughout.  As almost no one was taking part in scientific research, dirt was evenly distributed.  When Isaac Newton, the father of modern science, decided to begin to clean house, he began with what he interacted with most on a daily basis - that which was the most visible.  In the late seventeenth century, he uncovered the basic principles of mechanics (the motion of bodies) and geometric optics (the behaviour of visible light).

As the study of physics moved along, research in other fields of science began.  Before long, each room in the house was being cleaned in parallel.  The science research landscape was a busy one indeed during the twentieth century. 

As the dust settles, and the twenty-first century opens, we may look at the house and conclude that it is clean.  Scientific principles may be invoked to explain just about everything we typically interact with.  That which was most obvious, that which presented itself, has been sucked up by the scientific research community.  All that remains to be discovered in this well-traveled landscape of science is that which is not in plain view.

At this point, in order to push the boundaries of science, we need to move the bed, the heavy furniture... It is in the deepest darkest corners that the scientific knowledge that has thus far eluded us lies.  Perhaps the most important missing pieces of the scientific puzzle, like a lost set of keys, will show up in the last place that we look.

Some members of society outside the scientific community might look at our seemingly clean house, and suggest that it is clean enough.  They may deem that we ought to direct less funding towards academic research, as the science that affects us most directly has been uncovered.  After all, once I have vacuumed all of the visible surfaces in the house, it seems to me that the job is done.  My wife disagrees.

While the point at which a house is 'clean enough' is clearly debatable, is there a point in the scientific pursuit of man where we can say we 'know enough'?

In truth, mankind has been cleaning hidden dust for quite some time.  The relativistic principles discovered by Einstein in 1905 were not discovered because he encountered an object moving near the speed of light.  He asked the question, "What if," and discovered that time and space were relative entities.  Similarly, the quantum mechanics that govern the motion of particles on the atomic scale do not impact our lives directly.  It is for this reason that such behaviour went unquestioned for so long.  When Planck and Heisenberg, among others, dug deep into the microscopic scale throughout the twentieth century, they were able to learn about the strange, probabilistic behaviour that takes place within atoms.

Critics of such scientific efforts will say that curiosity about the physical world is, in itself, not a sufficient reason to invest funds into them.  While I disagree, it is important that such critics be informed that such discoveries lead to tangible technological advances.  GPS satellites could not work without properly accounting for the dilation of time onboard them.  So, the knowledge that time passes slower for bodies travelling at high speeds serves a purpose other than being really cool (although it most certainly is).  Similarly, without the deep understanding of the inner workings of the atom that is arrived at through quantum mechanics, there would be no computer age.  Discoveries made on the microscopic scale lead to macroscopic technologies. 

Today, the researchers at the CERN laboratory in Geneva are truly looking for dirt in the crevices of the physical world with the help of the Large Hadron Collider.  They are colliding particles into one another at high speeds in the hope of discovering new particles through the energy that is released.  As with vacuuming, the more thorough a job you wish to do, the more difficult the job becomes.  The work is extremely challenging, and I fear that the scientists and engineers involved may not appreciate that I am comparing their task to that of a mundane household chore.  

An unbelievable amount of funds for equipment and man hours has been and continues to be dumped into this project.  The return on investment may not arrive for some time (as was the case with relativity and quantum mechanics), but, when it does, there is no upper limit to how great it can be.  This is why scientific research is a worthwhile pursuit - it can have a transformative effect on civilization.

As I vacuum the last speck of dust behind the piano, and begin to return the machine to its resting place, I realize the other way in which the pursuit of dirt is like that of science: both are endless.  Next week, I will again plug in the motor and suck a whole new batch of dust that has collected in my house.  Science too is without an end point.  Answers to today's questions unveil new mysteries for the scientists of tomorrow to address.  It is in the best interest of society as a whole that these scientists be supported in their efforts.  It would be a real shame if we were to sweep the universe's best-kept secrets under the rug.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really like that you say that the answers to today's questions "unveil new mysteries for the scientists of tomorrow to address". I wish more people would keep peeling back the layers and pushing the boundaries of knowledge. We should never get too comfortable. Another blog that is doing the good work is Exploring the Bio-edge. They are strong on natural science hypothesis testing http://www.explorebioedge.com/bio-edge-blog/item/26-behind-the-bio-edge.html