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Make Progress Now!

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A bright idea shared brings progress. by Jonathan J. Dickau

If we want to see a better tomorrow, we need to make progress now toward that goal. The future could be bright or dismal, and by our actions and choices we can make it better, but it won't automatically get better -- if we do nothing to create a better world. In large measure, the world of tomorrow is the world we are creating today. So we can make a difference, improving the quality of life for ourselves and future generations, if we do what we must to promote positive progress -- which alone can create a better future. If we do not find ways to foster progress, and enable policies that insure it will be positive progress, we are creating a new "Dark Ages" instead. It is because I can see this so clearly that I am sitting here writing today. While I know there are individuals working almost tirelessly, doing everything they can to assure that the future will be better than today's world, and while I can't help but be inspired by those visionaries among us, I find that -- even when there is a consistent message -- most people just don't get it. From where I sit; there is a clear road to progress through innovation and the increase of knowledge and wisdom. The main problem we face is that the people with better answers are not being heard. They aren't guiding those who are making decisions, and those in a position of power are often compelled to act -- even when real answers are scarce, or non-existent, within their purview.

I realize there is considerable disagreement among the experts, but there are broad areas of agreement, even across disciplines. However; a level of uncertainty that is viewed as essential and healthy open-mindedness among top scholars, is seen as a sign of weakness, or a lack of knowledge, by much of the general public. Many human beings feel it is important to have a sense of certainty, even when the truth of the matter is unclear, but I think it is far better to suspend judgment until all the important facts are known.

When it was learned by the media that there were dissenters in the Climate Science community (the Berkeley group), who rejected some of the conclusions of their colleagues, some seized on this disagreement as evidence that global warming was a myth. Unfortunately; that is not what's real, and the dissenters were only insisting that we consider the quality of the evidence offered to date. When the Berkeley folks released the results of their new study, it greatly disappointed Climate Science critics, who were hoping they would refute earlier results and prove that global warming is not a problem, and was not caused by us. Instead; the new study showed that we are indeed in a warming trend and that mankind has accelerated the problem. This must be viewed as a challenge to people living today, which we shall rise to unless we wish to leave the next generation with an impossible burden.

Even with such challenges; it is certain that we can make things better, through intelligent and positive progress, if we begin now. And it is far better that we foster progress, than to do nothing, or to move backwards. It is undeniable that we human beings have created many of the problems we now face, and that some of those problems were created by our progress -- which fueled the industrial revolution. But rather than seeing progress as the enemy, we should realize that it can be our friend. It is true; things could have been handled more intelligently or administered more equitably, but most often it was handling progress and innovation badly which created problems. Of course; it is true that new developments, and the people who created them, have frequently been pressed into service by individuals motivated by greed or governments motivated by a desire to defeat and/or dominate their neighbors (and others considered enemies). This mentality tends to hoard information, guarding the real answers closely, and can turn good ideas to evil ends.

The awareness of this grim reality of human society nearly caused geodesic dome inventor Buckminster Fuller to jump off a bridge in Copenhagen, as a young man. He did not want to see all of his best work hijacked by industrialists or the military, as it was his wish to help mankind with the power of his brain. His decision not to jump came when he realized that he could design things we did not have the technology to build yet. He figured that if he focused mainly on things that we could build only 25 years later, he would not live to see them all turned to ill. Though that worked out fairly well for Bucky, even after living a good bit longer than 25 years, others have seen their work misused, and this causes some concern.

When he learned that I was headed to a scientific conference, a couple of years ago, my friend Pete Seeger told me a story about his father, which is recounted in his book "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?" (pg. 282-283). His dad had always been optimistic about life, but that changed in his last few years, as he became increasingly worried about the awful destructive power scientists were putting in the hands of world leaders to wage war. So, while knowledge can be a good thing; when the fruits of innovation and the search for knowledge are abused, this can bring people who would otherwise be carefree to fear.

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Such concerns are justified; however, to blame Science, innovation, or progress for our ills, is clearly a mistake. Even worse is blaming scientists. For the most part, scientists are good people who are trying to make the world a better place. In many cases, it was a desire to empower people to make things better, that made folks get into Science in the first place. I've met quite a few scientists in the last several years, and they have all been thoughtful, caring, and conscientious individuals. They know better. They also have concerns about how their good work can be turned to negative ends, and they worry about whether folks like themselves, who know there are better solutions, are going to be heard by those in power in time for their answers to do some good.

All too often, knowledgeable folks are not even asked for their input, nor are they listened to when they do speak up, and yet the people in power will still say that no better answers are available! Sometimes the hard choices faced by our leaders are artificial, because another option exists which is truly a better solution. When Pete tells the story about his father in the book, he adds that if his dad was still alive; he'd argue that Hegel taught that for every thesis and antithesis, there is a synthesis. If Seeger and Hegel are right, then the search for better answers could be our salvation.

If we are to have progress, while avoiding some of the problems it has brought in the past, the key is seeing that new knowledge is available to aid progress for many, rather than being hoarded for use only by a privileged or select few. Of course those people might still benefit more than the rest of us, but everybody will have more opportunities to learn and grow, when knowledge is freely shared and exchanged. This clearly aids progress. The fact that the LHC at CERN is sharing large amounts of data with the public is seen as a great boon to the entire Physics community, and ultimately to the world at large, by those in the know. However, people without a Physics degree, or who don't already know a fair amount about particle physics, will likely need an expert to explain the significance of what they are finding, and someone still more expert to point out how significant it is that some of the things they were looking hard to find have not been seen. You see, as CERN's theoretical physicist John Ellis said in a lecture I attended in Paris last July (at FFP11), when you don't get what you expect to see, that is when things get really interesting, as nature is showing you something totally wild and new, or realities previously unseen.

This notion was also championed by two Nobel laureates who spoke at a conference I attended in November of 2009 (FFP10), at UWA near Perth, Australia. Doug Osheroff spoke about how advances in Science are made, and what people can do to increase their chances of a discovery or breakthrough. He suggested that if you only look where other people have looked, or are already looking, you are far less likely to find something unique and interesting. He advised that we should study the theoretical basis for what we are examining, but not trust that the theorists know everything, saying that instead we should let our experiments reveal the true nature of reality. In addition, he said that researchers should not interpret a negative result (not seeing what's expected) as a failure, but rather see it as an opportunity to learn something new.

Osheroff's tale dealt mainly with the discovery of superfluid helium 3, which won him (and his colleagues) the Nobel Prize, and though this may seem like an abstract achievement, it enabled the progress which allowed others to create something called NMR which later became the MRI scanners used widely in Medicine today. The next person who took the podium that evening -- B.J. Marshall, another Nobel laureate -- made a discovery that contributed even more directly to Medicine, the H. Pylori bacteria which are the root cause of many gastric ailments. He and his collaborator, Professor Warren, were told they were fools to ask for stomach lining samples to study -- because everyone knew that bacteria could not exist in such a highly acidic environment.

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However; because they looked where others thought there was nothing to find, and since they questioned the prevailing view of scientific theory, they found the answer to a problem which others couldn't solve -- and ended a lot of human suffering. It makes sense, therefore, that if you want to do something that has never been done before, it requires ingenuity rather than conformity. You won't discover something exciting and new, unless you are willing to dare to do things differently, to challenge the prevailing view, and to brave new territory. However, there is a need to create incentives for people who take the plunge, and dare to explore unknown territory by questioning the mainstream view. And we also need to create opportunities for bright minds to explore. When Osheroff made his discovery; he was working in the laboratory of Professors Lee and Richardson, while he was a graduate student at Cornell, and he gives them most of the credit. It was apparent from the story that Osheroff's ingenuity was instrumental to the discovery made by that team, but he raised the point that it is increasingly common for only the lead researcher to get credit, when discoveries are made today. It was ultimately his professors' gracious act of including him as a collaborator on their published paper -- that won him the Nobel Prize.

This brings up the question of how often the real innovators go unrewarded, while the prizes go to others who are not actually exploring the leading edge themselves, and how we can assure that innovators and innovation will be properly acknowledged and rewarded. Paradoxically, many researchers or innovators don't do it for the money or recognition at all. Instead; they are mainly looking for the continued opportunity and freedom to explore. So the best way we can reward some of the brightest people is simply by putting them to work! But part of the working condition which will make them the most productive is to be told they don't need to produce results, in order to have the freedom to explore. Anton Zeilinger talked about this explicitly, in his lecture at FFP11 last July, telling the story that he once informed his employers "if you want us to produce results don't expect us to produce results." He explained that playful exploration is the best research strategy, while too many restrictions or heavy expectations placed on a researcher will make that person overly timid, or careless about their work, and actually slows the research progress down. In my own lecture at FFP11; I made a similar point, relating it to the structure of the brain. The neocortex is where most of the higher-level thinking takes place, and a mood of playful exploration tends to move our attention, and expand neural activity, into this region of the brain. But a mood of fear and intimidation, or reacting to such a mood, tends to move our attention into lower brain centers, and will activate the "lizard brain" which responds automatically and inflexibly.

This means that a high pressure results-driven mentality, or a similar mood in the workplace, is a great way to stifle innovation and halt progress, or to swiftly reduce a research or development team's output to a trickle. Unfortunately; that mentality is quite prevalent in corporate, government, and military settings; and now academic institutions are under increasing pressure to produce meaningful results quickly, or lose their funding. People who have been solid performers for years are now afraid that any misstep will lose them their jobs, and I think this has definitely had the effect Zeilinger was talking about, to inexorably slow progress to a halt.

While America's leaders seem bent on imposing this mentality upon our entire educational system, people in China are waking up to the fact that it has crippled innovation -- and are enticing Chinese emigres who had worked in research in the free world, to come back to China and teach others how to innovate! Americans have always been famous for their ingenuity, but while the pace of innovation is quickening overseas, it appears to be slowing on American shores -- and may already be in a stall. It is a fact that no airplane can remain aloft, unless it maintains a certain forward motion, as below that speed it will fall from the sky. So; if the engine of innovation stalls in a nation known for having ingenuity, and fostering innovation, our fall could be swift indeed.

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Jonathan is a modern Renaissance man. He is a Grammy award-winning engineer, a performer, a writer and lecturer, and a scientific researcher. Since recording "At 89" Jonathan has worked on other projects with Pete Seeger, including a 300 song (more...)

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