Marking time for the next scientific disruption
Science may have turned conservative because much of current work is conducted by very large teams, distributed across continents.
Over 20 years after Morse code signed off and digital radio communications took over the airwaves, it seems to be back with a bang in the US. The Smithsonian Magazine reports that America’s ham radio equipment makers are gaining business, and surprisingly, Morse rigs are in special demand. That’s the simplest audio hardware, as basic as the crystal radio receiver that kids used to make a generation ago, and which had started the radio boom in the early 20th century. It’s a thing of wonder because it has no power source. It uses the power of the radio wave alone, detected by a crystal diode—a crystalline ‘whisker’ (the polymath Jagadish Chandra Bose seems to hold the first US patent for such a device). That whisker is hard to find these days, but there are groups of crystal set fans the world over, still captivated by the retro magic of zero-power communications. Morse seems to be back for similar reasons—it’s simple, it’s retro, it’s dramatic and it’s restricted to a tiny community of the adept. It’s like a pagan cult.
A similar fascination for old technological magic has brought back valve amplifiers (that edged out crystal radios when broadcasting began in earnest), which are being sold at astronomical prices that would have slain a 1950s electronics engineer at 50 paces. Although valves, or vacuum tubes, are even harder to find than crystal diodes, it’s probably worth it. Because a valve amp has a warm, smooth response that no transistor can match. They’re not very good with the heavy bass which now dominates music, but they render midranges, trebles and the human voice with magical warmth. The valve set craze was preceded by the return of vinyl, which also sounds better than digital music, and the scratchy sound of dust in the groove—the sort of thing that Dolby was invented to iron out—is now sought after, a signature of better times, so better that they even sounded better.
While hobbyists are going retro, hard science and technology are slowing down, finds an analysis published in the year’s first issue of Nature. Michael Park, Erin Leahey and Russell J Funk have applied their new ‘CD Index’ to six datasets covering 45 million papers and 3.9 million patents filed over six decades. The index tracks citations, surmising that breakout research is more likely to be cited than related work which it cites. The study reports a steep drop since World War II in “disruptive science”, which breaks completely new ground and renders former gold standards outdated—like the Bohr atom, which explained the energetics of orbiting electrons and made earlier models of atomism redundant.
Spurred by conflict, the sciences made giant strides between the wars, and superpower rivalry sustained the momentum through much of the Cold War which followed. Penicillin revolutionised medicine in 1928 and the Apollo 11 mission, which brought back pictures of Earthrise from the Moon, changed humanity’s perception of our place in the universe as powerfully as Giordano Bruno, Galileo and Copernicus once had. And then the atomic and hydrogen bombs brought fresh, unpleasant insights. In technology, semiconductors changed how stuff was done in every discipline, from how to teach schoolchildren to how to land on the moon by computer guidance.
But grand stuff like that has been happening less and less, though paradoxically, scientific publishing has exploded. There’s just too much research for peer-reviewed journals to publish in good time, and the pandemic, when research results were sought almost in real-time as labs and pharma companies raced to find vaccines and drugs, made inevitable the rise of open-access preprint servers. Covid research was a life and death matter, but a lot of what’s pre-published these days in other disciplines would never have passed muster earlier.
There’s no stopping the deluge of papers because academics are under unprecedented pressure to publish—almost anything at all—just to keep their jobs. Rewrite the summary of a contemporary paper in plain language, and you may find nothing you didn’t know earlier. Also, academics has deepened—students of human origins, earlier content studying evidence-rich subjects like Australopithecines, Acheulean hand axes and such, must now also know about genetics and Denisovans, a race inferred from the slender evidence of the finger-bone of a girl. Academics has also broadened across disciplines—economists make sense of history and life scientists study mycelia, the silvery threads spun by funguses through the soil, to understand global warming and climate science.
But in the course of this deepening and broadening, science appears to have been flattened, too. Most of the research is incremental rather than disruptive. It’s a slow, steady march forward, with no big bangs. Not just run-of-the-mill PhD work, think of the news-making Nobel-winning work in recent years. The detection of the Higgs boson and gravitational waves confirmed Einstein’s work. They assured us that quantum physics was right. They didn’t change our worldview.
Science may have turned conservative because much of current work is conducted by very large teams, distributed across continents. The ability to pull together may have become more important than individual initiative. But perhaps science is also going through a patch in which nothing much remains to be discovered within the current framework of knowledge discovery and management. Science does slump sometimes. See how many centuries the classical medical theory of the four humours lasted in Europe before the foundational dissection work of Leonardo da Vinci, Andreas Vesalius and others spurred doctors to begin discovering the principles of modern medicine. Are we going through a brief slump, as the sciences consolidate for the next disruption?
Editor of The India Cable