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.

Short stories and movies

"Because they wanted to" is a great book title. It is a collection of short stories by Mary Gaitskill, including "Secretary". After seeing the DVD a year or two ago, I was intrigued and bought the book but, inevitably, never got round to reading it. I was in a short story mood the other day, so read a few of MG’s collection, as well as some of Annie Proulx’s (including Brokeback Mountain).

Secretary is what I would call a perfect short story. The reader is left intensely curious to know more about this character, her family and how they became stuck in this tortured set-up, but sure ain’t going to find out. (For me, this kind of thing is why I can’t read too many short stories close together.) The piece is a bare, focused account of a young woman’s inability to act on her confused emotions — or maybe I should say, responses. The author is particularly precise at depicting, with a light touch, the turmoil beneath the apparently placid exterior.

What struck me, as would any reader I am sure, is the contrast between the movie and the story. In the story, the main character is indeed briefly a secretary in similar circumstances to the character in the movie, a similar crisis-event occurs, but from there on the two are polar opposites. The message of the story: the guy is a pervert; the message in the movie: celebrate it.

I enjoyed both, but in the movie, the writer and director have taken the premise of the story and imagined the opposite — a case of "inspired by" rather than "based on". Sadly, the only place this inspiration took the film-makers to eventually was to a disappointingly Hollywood-inspired ending (I say disappointingly as it was an indie film, wasn’t it?). Never mind, it was still a good movie and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

I quite liked Brokeback Mountain (and a few of the others in Proulx’s book), but not all that much. I imagine the movie is more in line with the story than is Secretary, though I have not seen the movie, I’m just going by the reviews. Although I can easily relate to stoicism I could not identify much with the characters. I was mildly intrigued by the women but they barely registered as people, as opposed to plot devices. Unlike Secretary, whose author has that lovely knack of enabling the reader to fix a character, even one that doesn’t really appear, using half a sentence.

Jenny D said in a comment to an earlier post, "Don’t read The Shipping News". I don’t think I will.

Jenny D said…

I love Gaitskill, and I totally agree with you about the story vs. movie thing (I adored the movie–and while we’re on the topic of S/M lit, did you ever read Jenny Diski’s brilliant novel "Nothing Natural"?–but I think it betrayed the vision of the story). I highly recommend her novels, if you haven’t read them already: "Two Girls Fat and Thin" is my favorite, but "Veronica" well worth a read also.

7:52 PM

Frank Wilson said…

jenny d is right about The Shipping News. I couldn’t even get into it. I can’t comment on Secretary and have only seen the film of Brokeback. Those who have read the story and seen the film assure me the latter is faithful to the former (which led me to think that could account for the film’s weaknesses). That said, I think that short stories make better movies than novels (e.g., The Letter, based on a Maugham story – and Maugham wrote great stories – or The Man Who Would Be King, in my view a well-nigh perfect film.

9:31 PM

Maxine said…

Thanks for the comment, Jenny. I have in fact bookmarked at least one Jenny Diski novel on Amazon as a result of reading a post from you on Light Reading, recommending her. Will go and check which, add the others, etc.

I agree with you about Maugham, Frank. I have read every single one of his novels, plays and (I believe) all his short stories too, in several volumes. I’d forgotten that until I read your comment.

Short stories vs novels as movies is a subject for a post in itself — you have had some interesting thoughts over at Books, Inq. on that topic.

I definitely won’t bother with The Shipping News now.

11:22 PM

Good woman (not)

I haven’t written anything about books or films for a week or so. Last weekend we all watched "A Good Woman" via Amazon DVD rental (a very good service). We all liked the previous two Oscar Wilde adaptations so thought we’d try this one. However, I’d recommend either of those (The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband) over (as it is renamed) A Good Woman.

Briefly, as no need to dwell on the mediocre, the movie is like a made-for-TV episode. The story has been updated to the 1930s and set in Amalfi. The script is biphasic: Oscar Wilde jewels crop up now and again (sometimes for a whole conversation, sometimes for one piece of wit), but the rest of it is of the "Oh, OK, then" variety. Similarly the actors – Tom Wilkinson (excellent as ever), John Standing and a couple of other "old boys" lounge around being frightfully English and Oscar-Wildy, spouting witticisms. The rest of the time, young, good-looking US actors who can’t act (including Scarlett Johanssen, who wears not very much in quite a few scenes very well, but is not equal to much else), aided by a dreadful script, mangle the rest of the story. The whole is embarrassingly atrocious. (Helen Hunt, in the title role, is the exception to her compatriots– she acts almost too feelingly, exposing even more the cardboard of the rest of it.)

A quick look in DVDs in Amazon UK reveals no returns for "A Woman of No Importance", so as mentioned above, if you are in an OW mood, don’t go for this, go for one of the previous two. Neither of those is classic (the most stand-out dreadful moments are Reese Witherspoon’s fantasy scenes in "Earnest") , but they are both streets better than this missed opportunity.

Just off to take Cathy to a party.

Networking

Philobiblon: Tick off the new experience

The thoughtful and feminist blog Philobiblon has a weekly (?) round up of women’s blogs, as apparently women are not renowned for their presence in the "blogucopia" (my word for blogosphere) . I sent her (I assume Philobiblon’s blog takes the feminine rather than the gender neutral) some recommendations, as requested, last week. Much to my delight, she has not only picked up on a couple of those but also on Petrona! I am so touched. It is a great sensation when you know someone has read your blog. Thank you, Philobiblion.

While on the topic, my friend Giles Goat-Boy (Giles G-B for short) has encouraged me to re-try Performancing’s web metrics. I have not been interested in monitoring visitors (as I don’t suppose I have many, and Petrona is for my own thoughts as much as anything else). However, On G G-B’s recommendation (as he does this kind of thing professionally and so knows what he is talking about) ,I gave it a whirl last night and put the code into Petrona, but nothing seemed to happen. I put this down to my technical incompetence, but on logging on today — there it all is! So now I know I have visitors from France, Australia, USA etc — and Giles G-B is right, it is heady (even when there are only a handful of viewers). Thanks, Giles G-B. (And I can recommend Performancing, linked in the right-hand navigation bar.)

What a wonderful place is the company of bloggers!