Thursday, May 1, 2008

2: In Search of the Philosopher's Stone

It must be a couple of thousand years since the Ancient Greeks outlined the Grand Challenge to changing Base-Metal into Gold. Not a guiding vision of high ideals to improve dentistry; the motive was unquestionably monetary! They had noted the similarity between lead and gold, and reasoned that gold might be what happens when you mix lead with 'something' ... the alternative of course was less attractive.

Though the Challenge still stands today, it wasn't a failure because it 'started' the scientific study of materials which delivered steady value over the next thousand or so years ... before really kicking-in big-time around 1750. At this time a threshold of knowledge had been passed and an avalanche of possibilities, in medicines and engineering was being released ... The Industrial Revolution brought an economic boost more powerful than the ancients could ever have dreamt.

Of course popular history tends to remember it for its injustice: The displacement of cottage industries; The mechanisation of farming; The personal suffering that they caused; And the birth of the Luddites. But it also marks the inflection point where the net global birth rate changed from 0.1%pa where it had been 'forever', to the 2%pa still typical of today. A situation not brought about by increased reproductive enthusiasm, but by increased longevity ... Science was saving life!

... Under normal circumstances that increased growth rate would have continued for a while, then fallen back to 'normal' as one or other depredation corrected the imbalance. But as we know, material science continued to deliver and through a continuum of improvements in transportation, sanitation, water, medicine, food, living conditions, power, agriculture, living standards, (etc), has maintained that unprecedented figure right up to today. Of course one consequence is the world population growth from around 800M to the 6.5B ... Or to look at it another way, 5 out of 6 people in the world today owe their very existence to that Grand Challenge!

Much more modestly in 1961 President Kennedy challenged USA scientists to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade ... and today's $300Bpa semiconductor industry can trace its roots to that challenge. He backed the challenge with money, so it is hardly surprising that the local (USA) industries got the lion's share of the opportunities. And America got its man on the Moon as well.

... The spin-out opportunities that emerged whilst perusing Grand Challenges were exploited for financial gain by what became known as Business; They created the Equivalent of Gold from the thoughts of the Philosophers! It seems we actually found 'The Stone' many years ago but didn't notice as it was more ephemeral and malleable than originally expected.

Now if you ask those Businesses what they expect from their Research communities, they will rightly demand ... "More gold-equivalent opportunities! And we want them now!". Though well able to exploit the results of Research, Business is not really equipped to provide the longer term guidance that The Grand Challenge does. Grand Challenges provides a degree of high-level vision to keep Researchers progressing in a 'probably valuable' direction ... without which they revert to the uncoordinated hyperactivity of Brownian Motion; or the reactive oscillation of responding to Business immediacy.

Against that background the recent flush of Grand Challenges in the UK seem very modest affairs; but we have seen the mighty oaks that grow from little acorns! So I particular like the quartet: Building brains; Moore for less; Silicon meets life; No batteries included.

... They carry a certain fundamental resonance and seemingly attainable objectives; which though could be achieved in ~15yrs, could still be guiding research in 150 (or even 1,500). They are not technology specific, but have enough charisma to rally researchers across a wide field to their cause. So if Business can watch patiently and keep its exploitation wallets at the ready (without interfering too much); And if Governments can be brave enough to fund research which is not always immediately applicable; Then a myriad gold-equivalent opportunities will emerge along the journey ... The lion's share of which will benefit the economy locally.

And if a few of us can tear our eyes away from the glittering heap for a moment, to think of wider values. We can provide encouragement for Researchers struggling with their nightmares, and help stir up Public and Government support for some of their seemingly bizarre causes. And through this minor intervention, we will rightly numbered with those whose actions continued the advancement of science...

... And to whom, all too soon, 19 out of 20 people in the world will be able to credit their existence!