Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Belshaw's World: Nerds, Geeks and the decline of science

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 11 November 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.
Last week my wife was away. With the TV free, eldest and I watched Beauty and the Geek Australia.

I am actually a bit of a sucker for reality TV. It also gives me something to watch with my daughters. Mind you, and this will not surprise you, female tastes are somewhat different from those of us mere males. I cannot share the fascination for Project Runway!

Watching the program took me in an unexpected direction. Just what is the difference between geeks, nerds, dorks and indeed boffins?

Searching around, I found one part definition that attracted my fancy: a nerd is someone who is very intelligent, a geek is someone who is very knowledgeable, and a dork is someone who argues the difference!

This left boffins.

I actually have a very soft spot for boffins. Growing up in a university environment, I knew a fair number. They were also the people who played such a key role in wining the Second World War.

Pouring myself another glass of red wine, my thoughts continued to wander.
I don’t know whether you realise this, but in some ways we seem to have come to the end of the scientific and technological revolution that has formed the core of a lot of our thinking over the last two centuries.

This may sound an odd thing to say given the apparent current obsession with new technology. Yet I think that it’s true.

When I asked eldest just what she would rank as modern scientific advances, she listed vaccination (China or India c200 BC, Europe 18th century), key hole surgery (1910) and computers (1936 first freely programmable computer).

For my part I thought of DNA (1953), nanotechnology (term first used 1959) quantum physics (term quantum mechanics first used 1924).

Most of the major technologies that we use, and their supporting sciences, are far older than most people realise. Okay, you say, what about genetically modified crops? The first date here appears to be 1972, forty seven years ago.

Well, then, what about the internet? Even here there is a very long history, although the world wide web itself dates from 1990.

Each new scientific advance and the technology it spawns takes time for the effects to be fully felt.

Just at present, we are feeling the full impact of the digital revolution. For that reason, we still feel that we live in an age of technological change.

In some ways we do. It’s just that the really new is in decline.

Today we are good at adapting, less good at inventing something really new.
The reasons for this are complicated.

Part of the reason lies in the end of the love affair with science and technology, a love affair that in some ways peaked in the nineteenth century, but continued for decades after that.

If we take the internet and digital technology as an example, the modern young have about as much interest in this refrigeration technology. They see no romance in the technology. It just is.

Part of the reason, too, lies in our increasingly constipated and controlled approaches with their application focus.

I bear a share of the guilt here.

Actions that I took played a key role in the first decision that tied University funding to the creation of specific discipline places, in this case IT, instead of giving universities freedom in the allocation of funds.

I also played a significant role in the discussions centred on the need to make universities more focused on the commercialisation of research results.

In all this, I was seeking balance. I had no idea that the thoughts and actions that I and others were responsible for would actually destroy the “blue sky” thinking that is central to a real university and to the creation and advance of knowledge.

You see, once academic success becomes measured in the number of patents that you have been responsible for, the game is lost.

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