28 August 2009

Analysis is the mother of invention

Invention isn't what it used to be. When I made the decision (at age 11, or thereabouts) to be freelance scientist, I had a lot of role models in mind but prominent among them was the anarchic spirit of absent-minded inventor Professor Branestawm[1]. It was still easy to find real inventors like him, then; I knew one, and was taught by a couple more as an undergraduate. Nowadays, while part of him still lurks in many outwardly staid scientists, they would never acknowledge him. His demise was inevitable, but was finally assured by the arrival of computerised data analysis.

Invention comes in two basic types: ‘let’s try this and see what we get’, and ‘this is what we want, so how are we going to get it?’ Branestawm, surprisingly for a scatterbrained professor archetype, was of the second kind: he started from an idea for an invention, and pursued likely paths to its realisation. Modern equivalents are easy to find, from James Dyson who envisaged a better way of picking up dust and made it happen, to Altair moon lander architect John Connelly. Shifting from physics to pharma, the search for an H1N1 vaccine (proceeding apace as I write this) is in the same category, but there are also many examples of the first type: batteries of agents tried in combination and in various situations until a therapeutic effect is identified. For the most part, of course, invention programmes are mixtures of the two approaches, especially when seeking a nonpatented way to compete with an existing solution. Regardless of approach, invention is (like all post-Branestawm science) highly dependent upon data analysis. [more...]

This one benefited in different but equally significant ways from conversations with Julie Heywood, Jim Putnam and (as always) Ray Girvan. They may well disagree with me about the use I have made of their input, but it is no less valuable for that. There was no mechanism or opportunity for acknowledging this benefit in the article itself, so I do it here.

  1. Norman Hunter (ill: W Heath Robinson), The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm. 1933, London: John Lane.


Ray Girvan said...

about the use I have made of their input

Thanks! (although, reading the article, I can't even see any input I recognise). I was interested to see, though, that there's a scholarly review paper on Branestawm: Professor Brainstawm and his friends, Outram D., Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, Volume 27, Number 1, March 1996 , pp. 109-114(6), Elsevier.

I'm wearing two pairs of glasses even as I write this.

Dr. C said...

Good piece, Felix. We are truly awash in data. On the other hand, there have been few major breakthroughs in Science based on this data recently (e.g. relativity theory, quantum theory, the transistor, lasers, etc.) I wouldn't include String theory because I am not sure it has yielded anything yet. On a practical level there has been no breakthrough in fusion research, and Nixon's War on Cancer is almost 40 years old. I don't count Mac computers and iPhones as an advance just like one wouldn't count Cassini probes or even Apollo landings. They are just extensions of technology. Maybe these current data mining programs will bring radical changes. I hope so. The nanotechnology one is interesting.

We still don't know exactly how proteins fold, though it looks like they are starting on ab initio calculations, But:
"Because of computational cost, ab initio MD folding simulations with explicit water are limited to peptides and very small proteins."