01 December 2005

Science Trends.

I set out when I started this blog to write a great deal about modern, fundamental physics. I have written some about those issues, and that is where my roots in science are, I have a far more solid background in physics than in any other scientific discipline, unless you call math itself a science. But, they have turned out not to be the heart of my science coverage. As Kyle at Pit of Babel notes, even a larger share of physicists are frustrated with what is going on in the fundamental physics community these days.

The problem with fundamental physics, is that it has an abundance of theoreticians, and a dearth of new empirical evidence. Old particle accelerators has been soaked for just about all the data that can be obtained from them, new, more powerful ones have yet to be built, data to confirm the Pioneer 10 and 11 effects (discrepancies in their dynamics not easily explained by conventional gravity theories) from other probes is not widely available, the latest relativity tests don't have enough data in to be conclusive, and no telescopes significantly better the Hubble (which is still doing some great work in its final days) is on line yet. Moreover, a focus on getting men to Mars at NASA is displacing funds for basic science projects. There are also some interesting table top scale experiments on photoluminenessence and microscale gravity underway, but the results from those experiments thusfar, either reveal nothing new or are inconclusive.

The other problem with fundamental physics, as I have noted before, is relevance. If someone discovered conclusively, tomorrow, that dark energy did not exist, that the universe's rate of expansion was, in fact, not accelerating, and that dark matter existed and was composed of axions, for example, not much would change. Nor, for that matter, would some clever thought experiment that somehow definitively ruled out the many worlds intepretation of quantum physics, for example.

This doesn't mean that science is stagnant. The real hot area, so far as I can tell as an educated layman, is in the area of biochemistry and genetics. We are finally beginning to get a really comprehensive and fundamental understanding of the biochemistry of the human body and many other chemical processes. We know far better than we did, even a decade ago, what is causing a great many diseases. Today is World AIDS Day, and while we may not have cracked that particular disease, we do now have drugs that can help people infected with HIV to live decades longer than they would have without drugs, and a making progress towards a cure, or at least, a prospectively effective vaccine. We are getting a better understanding of what, precisely, separates humans from other primates. We are getting a handle on the biochemical basis of fear and sleep and social trust and sexual preference.

These developments make profound differences in both civilian and military technology. For example, deaths make up a far lower percentage of casualties in Iraq than in almost any prior war, because field medicine has advanced so far. Developments in heart disease treatments could save hundreds of thousands of lives a year through relatively cheap and proven drugs. We have not made it to the end of the rainbow in treating cancer, but survival rates are slowly trending up. Better understandings of disease causation are turning what used to be orphan ailments into members of larger disease families, and thus amenable to treatment. Genetic tests are becoming dramatically cheaper to conduct.

These aren't the only developments in science going on right now, of course, but they seem to be much more relevant and more numerous than developments in fundamental physics, which explains why they have gotten more attention here.

No comments: