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Monday, 5 May 2014

The growth of science

Science often advances when somebody comes up with a new method, but sometimes that method is a new machine. When my wife and I were courting, as it was still called in them there days, we spent a certain amount of time in swamps, attaching cobalt chloride paper to the leaves of assorted Banksias, so she could see how long they took to change colour. I was no use on the colour changes, being fairly "colour blind", but at least I could do the hack work and provide support.

Our daughter, of whom we are excessively proud, combines being a provider of grandchildren with being a post-doc who uses whizz-bang machines. In particular, she uses a laser to measure something similar to what my wife assessed with coloured bits of paper.

That led us, while driving to yum cha this morning, to reflect on how things have changed. I recalled that in 1988, the Irish PM (I think it was Bertie Ahern, but don't hold me to that) came to Australia and presented us with a file with all the convicts who left Ireland, plus their details, in it.

There was a problem: at 40 megabytes, the file was too large to load on any computer that we had, so we needed to set it aside until technology caught up. A while back, I went out to talk to students at Birrong Girls' High about the year 1859 from a particular viewpoint, and I took a PowerPoint file of artworks from the period that was almost 40 megabytes.

I carried it on a USB thumbstick, along with a huge range of other files that I might have needed, which used up almost none of the 8 gigabytes that it offered. The thumbstick cost me about one ten-millionth of what that much memory would have cost me in 1981: if you factor in inflation, you can make that one fifty-millionth!

We lose track of the way things are changing. As Robyn Williams observed, history is something we only perceive in hindsight. All the same, we keep increasing our expectations. Now, when somebody dies, it is a matter for fury and demands of "why the doctors did not do more?"

In the end, I suspect that we will run out of new machines, new meters, new metrics, and I wonder how society will react to that. Just as economists never saw the possibility that the economy might stop growing, we are unprepared for science to stop growing. I wonder if we should start to brace ourselves?

Maybe I should have called this "the end of science"?

Perhaps, but I would hate to be accused of tabloidism.

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