Science – Old Funding and New Money

Will scientific and other priorities in the coming century be determined at the whim of a near-omnipotent aristocracy?

BILLIONAIRES-SCIENCE“For better or worse,” said Steven A. Edwards, a policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “the practice of science in the 21st century is becoming shaped less by national priorities or by peer-review groups and more by the particular preferences of individuals with huge amounts of money.”  

As federal dollars for research diminish — falling victim to political and “culture” war — many billionaires have been stepping up to fund various scientific efforts, deliberated in part by eccentricity and whim. “The donors are impatient with the deliberate, and often politicized, pace of public science, they say, and willing to take risks that government cannot or simply will not consider…. Yet that personal setting of priorities is precisely what troubles some in the science establishment. Many of the patrons, they say, are ignoring basic research — the kind that investigates the riddles of nature and has produced centuries of breakthroughs, even whole industries…”

Read on! Moreover remember these are mostly the Good Guy Billionaires — as I portray in Existence. Those who generally want an all-boats-rising, positive-sum system… the kind of system that made them. I guess in a new gilded age, this is the best we can hope for, as opposed to the other kind, who reflexively act on ancient human instincts to push for feudalism.

Bring on the Medicis.

== But then… what is science? ==

Enemies of science have an array of tactics, honed across decades at the same ad agencies and “think tanks” that brought you campaigns proclaiming that cars don’t cause smog and tobacco is harmless. But to be clear, the assault is not coming only from the mad right.  There is a mad left, too, that wallows in conspiracy theories, rails against biology and vaccines, and has been the feedstock for an intellectual travesty called “postmodernism” — trying to deny that science can “know” anything, at all.

WHAT-IS-SCIENCEAs a member of a civilization that has mostly benefited from this new and vastly more honest way of confronting the universe, it behooves you to understand it better, in order to refute the foes who want a return the to dark ages.  As I suggested earlier, the new television series COSMOS is a great place to start.

On an intellectual plain… well… here’s a fascinating rumination about the nature of science, offered by Alan Sokal, who famously skewered postmodernism’s fevered incantation-frenzy with a famous trap of enticing gibberish.  Here’s one choice observation: “George Orwell got it right when he observed that the main advantage of speaking and writing clearly is that “when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.””

Kind of a bit like CITOKATE, no?

== Solving a potentially lethal defect ==

But we may yet find ways to achieve the more-flat and more-open and more-fair world.

firechat-wirelessHere’s a step in that direction. FireChat, uses Multipeer Connectivity Framework, a feature Apple added with the latest update to its mobile operating system, to chat and send images via WiFi and Bluetooth without being connected to the Internet. Using Multipeer Connectivity Framework, one person with an Internet connection could potentially relay information to an area where the Internet doesn’t exist, like a rural area or subway station, using each phone as a node.

As it turns out, this Apple product — along with another called iBeacon — is just one implementation of the next big thing.  Low Energy Bluetooth or BLE is a new realm of applications that will let you do 10,000 cool things via tiny-packet bluetooth radio pulses… like find your seat in a stadium and then order your hotdog. Trouble is, you have zero selectivity as to who will get your packets and pulses and know where and who you are.

P2PThe tremendously good thing is it will let us bypass the cell companies who refused to create peer-to-peer text passing  when a phone cannot reach a tower. This capability I have been demanding for TWO decades as a major step toward society resilience and safety… and now the cellcos will pay for their stubbornness as millions start bypassing them for text, altogether. Serves them right. Still, this is gonna be an awkward transition.  A better version must offer us more control.

In related news… Google will host three developer conferences this year for its Project Ara modular smartphone concept. Project Ara is a push to make modular smartphones a reality. Instead of buying a single, fully-constructed phone where all the components seem like a black box, the Ara project is exploring the idea of snapping phones together based on individual components.

As sensors become cheaper, you’ll be able to sniff for toxins, appraise your water, see in the dark, navigate seamlessly… aw heck, I took you on a tour of possibilities in a recent book, right?

== Would you want wood? ==

Learn about a highly engineered material called cross-laminated timber (CLT). The enormous panels are up to half a foot thick. They’re made by placing layers of parallel beams atop one another perpendicularly, then gluing them together to create material with steel-like strength. “This construction has more in common with precast concrete than traditional timber frame design.” Many engineers like to call it “plywood on steroids.”  Towers are being made from it.  The building material of the future?

A tree can also be your friend, in need. For a makeshift way to purify water: break a branch from a pine tree, peel away the bark and slowly pour lake water through the stick. Good for your novel?

But on the other hand… why not do it better? A team of researchers at MIT, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and in Saudi Arabia succeeded in creating sub-nanoscale pores in a sheet of graphene, a development that could lead to ultrathin filters for improved desalination or water purification. But it’s in the theme of this sub-heading because the source is Oak Ridge.  Get it?

Rights-of-way-mega-citiesSometimes the old ways are best… even in infrastructure!  London runs fiber optic cables through its 19th Century sewer system!

This is remarkably related both to my idea about revitalizing mega cities in developing nations and how to bring super fiber to every home in the developed world!

The key: rights-of-way.

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