Thursday, January 26, 2023

Has Scientific Progress Stalled?

Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Simple answer, no. We're actually on a precipice of world-changing benefits from basic scientific research.

Recently, there's been a lot of hand wringing over a supposed lack of scientific progress. Some people look at past decades and see a parade of scientific advances like the transistor (1947), the integrated circuit (1958), the microprocessor (1971), the personal computer (1977), the World Wide Web (1991). Since then, what? Google? Facebook? TikTok? If anything, judging by those three, science seems to be, if anything, regressing.

So here's the good news. On two fronts, science is on the precipice of delivering the greatest advances in history. No shit.

One is obvious. It's fusion energy. Early in my lifetime, we were all promised that nuclear power would generate so much power that it would be, literally, "too cheap to meter." Unfortunately, power generation using nuclear fission never lived up to its promise. Fusion power is something else again. Maybe it won't be too cheap to meter, but it will be abundant and clean. It will allow us to quit building coal- and gas-fired power plants. This clean energy source will be so abundant that it will make desalination of sea water economically feasible, thus solving the fast growing problem of water shortages around the world. Very recently, scientists (finally) created more energy from a fusion reaction than it took to create it. That scientific breakthrough is a sign that we're closer to an economic breakthrough as well. That's when the public will benefit and recognize the scientific progress that makes it all possible.

The other scientific advance has been as long in coming as fusion power, but the public is even less aware of it, either what it even is or how it can benefit us. That's quantum computing. In The New Yorker, Stephen Witt predicts, "Such a device could help address climate change and food scarcity, or break the Internet. Will the U.S. or China get there first?" He describes the efforts to develop a quantum computer as an international race like the Space Race of the 1960s. The players in the race are companies like Google and Amazon and governments like the US and Chinese national security agencies. Jeremy O'Brien, the C.E.O. of a startup in the field, is quoted as saying, "The impact of quantum computing is going to be more profound than any technology to date."

So don't listen to the Cassandras whining that scientific breakthroughs are a thing of the past. We ain't seen nothin' yet.

1 comment:

Mark Steger said...

I talked of "advances" and "progress" and "benefits". A reader warns that any advances (scientific or technological) bring with them new problems. Certainly nuclear physics is exhibit A in that regard. And warnings about what dangers will accompany further advances in computing (quantum or otherwise) are also being talked about. My point is that science/engineering/technology is not slowing down. Maybe I should have added a paragraph warning that if society thinks progress is slowing down, society risks not being prepared for the problems that will come along with those advances. But that extra paragraph would have been a buzz kill. I was feeling hopeful when I wrote today.