Monthly Archives: August 2016

TOWARDS UNDERSTANDING THEORETICAL RESEARCH IN SCIENCE! 

 

Theories and research results are both important for science! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Theories and research results are both important for science! (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Despite the efforts of education and media, most people still do not know or understand much about science and scientific research.  The understanding I am referring to does not involve facts and figures so much as activities, aims, and rationales.  Research in theoretical science is particularly viewed and rejected as being a total waste of money and time.  Those mistaken viewpoints are largely due to an absence  of knowledge about the usefulness of theories in science.  This article tries to illuminate the value of theoretical research so you will understand how it plays an important role in the advancement of science.

Theories in science! 

Science wants to know more about everything!  Most research in biomedicine, chemistry, or physics deals with subjects and activities that can be examined directly or indirectly (e.g., animals or cells, polymers or monomers, and, minerals or atoms).  Theories in all branches of science deal with subjects that are not able to be examined directly or indirectly, but can be investigated at the level of what is known already, what could be possible, what can explain something that is not understood, what would happen if and when, and, how can some valid estimate be made for something that cannot be measured directly.  Theories in science basically use what is known to try to investigate or explain something that is unknown and unavailable for direct studies; their validity is judged on  the basis of evidence from research experiments.

Theory versus practice! 

Scientists usually are very specialized, but all can be divided into being either theorists or experimentalists.  The boundaries of this division can be changed with time, when more new knowledge by experimentalists is discovered.  A good example of this dynamic occurred recently when research probes and very special research instruments began to be sent far out into space (e.g., see:  “The New James Webb Space Telescope!” ); all of a sudden, astrophysicists working only at the level of theoretical physics had to confront their theories with real data!  Some of their theories about planets, stars, galaxies, and dark holes were validated, others had to be modified, and some were disproved.  Note that even established theories that are later shown to be invalid still had been helpful for temporarily filling gaps within scientific knowledge about outer space; by proving or disproving a theory, the newly acquired experimental data advances the scientific search for truth.

My own thesis advisor was an experimentalist in cell biology, and once told me that he had seen a certain senior professor walking along a walkway on campus with his head bent forward looking only down at the pavement.  That individual was a pioneering theoretical biologist who analyzed subjects with mathematics; anyone could readily imagine all kinds of equations bouncing around his head as he walked along!  My advisor said all that was very well so long as the theories agreed with practice (i.e., with direct experimental data).  I then asked him what he meant.  He answered that this theoretician had developed a mathematical study of eukaryotic cell division, and had come up with an extensive conclusion about how that activity operated, including that the entire process took place in 24.3 seconds; this number does not match actual direct observations with microscopy showing that it takes some hours!

What is the value of theories for science? 

Theories are good for science because they provide discrete points of study for new research, can give estimates where direct measurements cannot be made, and, help understand complex activities and relationships which are impossible to examine directly.  For science, theories are useful as targets for research questions and for designing new experiments.

Scientific theories are more than just fanciful ideas.  They are somewhat similar to large conclusions from direct research studies in that they: (1) always are subject to revision (i.e., due to new research results), (2) often last a long time, but some vanish when they are completely disproved, and, (3) stimulate new directions for experimental researchers to work on.

A classical example of the value of theories for science is the heliocentric theory of Copernicus, proposing that the Earth revolves around the Sun, unlike the older standard theory that the Sun circles around the Earth.  As time passed, more and more experimental research data provided evidence that the standard theory is wrong and the heliocentric theory is correct.  Many modern researchers in astronomy and space science now follow what has developed from the ancient theory of Copernicus.

Another good example is Darwin‘s theory of evolution.  That complex proposal cannot be directly examined today because the eons of time during which it operated are unavailable.  This extensive theory can explain very many observable details about similarities, differences, and specializations in animals, plants, microbes, and fossils.  The large amount of solid evidence from research for the validity of this classical theory does not prevent ongoing questions and criticisms from being raised.  That is good and is essential for science’s mission to find the truth based upon evidence from research results!

Concluding remarks! 

Everything can and should be questioned, even well-known theories, dogmas, or popular sacred cows!  Science always seeks to evaluate and test accepted conclusions, concepts, and theories when new research experiments make additional data available.  Theories and research in science are complementary, and both are very useful!

 

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NEW TECHNOLOGY AND NEW COMMERCIAL PRODUCTS NEED A SEQUENCE OF INTERACTIONS BETWEEN SCIENCE, ENGINEERING, AND INDUSTRY! 

 

Not all new ideas become commercial products! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Not all new ideas become commercial products!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Anyone can come up with an idea for a useful new device, but it always is uncertain whether that can be converted into a new product for sale. Typically, there is a long chain of interactions between the original idea for a new device and the marketed new product!  This chain of events is quite general, and is good for everything from a new refining process that generates cheaper gasoline, to new expensive diagnostic kits for identifying specific diseases.  This article will outline the general sequence whereby scientific research, engineering development, and industrial modifications lead to new commercial products, using the important example of producing drinkable water from seawater.

Background on desalination [1,2]! 

All humans get thirsty every day!  Water to be drinkable (i.e., potable water) must be freed from bacteria, dissolved salts, sediments, and various chemicals.  Ocean water is much more plentiful than natural fresh water, but cannot be used directly to quench thirst.  Desalination (i.e., removal of salts from the starting liquid) has primary importance for purifying water, and is increasingly important as the global human population increases and the amount of natural fresh water decreases.

Removing dissolved salts can be accomplished by several different ways.  Most people are familiar with water purification by distillation (i.e., boiling water to produce steam, followed by cooling to condense the steam into salt-free liquid water).  Where large numbers of people need to have potable water for drinking, simple distillation is not usable because it has insufficient speed and capacity, as well as a high energy cost.

In practice, physical filtration of salty source water is used commonly for pre-treatment to remove sediments and microorganisms.  The processes utilized to separate filtered water from dissolved salts involve chemical or physical mechanisms working at the level of molecules and ions (e.g., adhesion, ion exchanges, permeation through very small pores, precipitation, etc.).  One of the processes frequently being utilized is reverse osmosis (i.e., pressure forces water molecules through minute pores that are too small to allow passage of hydrated salt ions).  In countries having little natural fresh water, desalination of ocean water often is conducted by special facilities inside large buildings that use reverse osmosis to produce many thousands of gallons of purified water every day.

Involvement of research and engineering [1,2]! 

Commercial devices for desalination now are available for individual people, and very large-scale plants are providing potable water for substantial populations.  Success of desalination is evaluated with regard to costs for energy and operation, efficiency, environmental effects, final purity, rate of purification, stability, suitability for human consumption (e.g., deficient iodine content), etc.  Research and development  into all these aspects is ongoing, and involves everything from materials science (e.g., new or modified membranes with pores having better selectivity) to systems engineering (e.g., using heat generated from nuclear reactors to facilitate desalination processes). Many investigations into desalination already have been conducted; the science journal, Desalination, is now approaching publication of its 400th volume!  As availability of natural fresh water in our world diminishes, the importance of making yet further improvements in desalination continues to rise.

Basic research by scientists seeks to answer questions without regard to later practical uses.  For desalination, basic research has established the physics and chemistry of the different mechanisms involved (e.g., detailed characteristics, purity and residual salt content, ion selectivity of pores, capacity, energy required, etc.).  Applied research then examines the fundamentals of desalination with regard to using modifications and different kinds of materials and processes to give better results.

Development of desalination products and processes seeks to modify and combine the results of applied research so the activities of each part of desalination are optimized for commercial production or industrial usage.  The goal is to obtain the largest volume and best purity with the least  cost in the shortest time.  This area of work is done by engineers, and commonly takes place in industrial research centers.  Testing of prototypes often necessitates further changes in design.  Scaling is evaluated for applications with different volume requirements for pure water output from various salty sources.  Finally, industrialists work to offer commercially viable new or improved versions of desalination both in small personal devices and in large plants for public installations.

General discussion! 

The long sequence of work needed for any new commercial product or process (e.g., better and cheaper batteries, shoelaces that last longer, safe new pharmaceutical medicines, self-driving automobiles, etc.) is general and much the same as was just described for the example of desalination!  The entire sequence requires the efforts by many different people working as individuals, teams, and companies.  All of this research and development leads to new products or processes playing a very important role for making our lives better!

Concluding remarks! 

A common sequence of input from computer specialists, inventors, research scientists, engineers, technical workers, and industrial developers is needed to enable new commercial products and new industrial developments to be offered to the public.  Although one individual can have key importance, completing the entire sequence requires input from many people!

 

[1]  Fritzmann, C., Löwenberg, J., Wintgens, T., and Melin, T., 2007.  State-of-the-art of reverse osmosis desalinationDesalination  216:1-76.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0011916407004250 .

[2]  Thiel, G.P., June 2015.  Salty solutionsPhysics Today  VOL:66-67.  Available on the internet at:  http://scitation.aip.org/content/aip/magazine/physicstoday/article/68/6/10.1063/PT.3.2828 .

 

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STORIES ABOUT THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF A SCIENTIST ARE TOLD IN A WONDERFUL ARTICLE BY ADRIAN CHO (2016 Science)!  

 

 

Life is a great adventure for some scientists! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Life is truly a great adventure for some scientists! (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

This will be my very shortest dispatch, since here I only want to urge everyone to read about the fantastic life of the physicist, Rainer Weiss, in a masterful account by Adrian Cho (see:  “The Storyteller” in August 5, 2016 Science 353:532-537)!  No understanding of physics is needed!  Just read and enjoy it!

What a life!  What a wild fellow!  After flunking out of college, he used his creativity to survive and become a celebrated researcher!  What a creative tinkerer and experimenter!  Very unconventional!  Awesome!  What a distinctive individual!  Yes, scientists are people!

 

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THE BIGGEST PROBLEMS KILLING UNIVERSITY SCIENCE STILL PREVAIL IN 2016!

 

How can scientific research at universities be saved from decay and death? (http://dr-monsrs.net)
How can scientific research at universities be saved from more decay and death?      (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Most people are not at all concerned with science, so they presume that everything is just fine for scientific research at universities.  This is utterly wrong!  Just because science journals continue to publish myriad new articles by faculty scientists, and the government agencies spend billions of taxpayer dollars each year to support research studies, does not mean that all is well!  In fact, many faculty scientists are very dissatisfied with their job (see: “Why are University Scientists Increasingly Upset with Their Job? Part I” )!

In this essay I briefly summarize the present status of the biggest problems causing me to conclude that university science is being so distorted and so diverted from its true aims that it is headed for collapse (see:  “Could Scientific Research Now Be Dying?” ).    My purpose in today’s article  is to encourage awareness of this critical situation, stimulate forthright discussions and debate, and, emphasize that much more attention to this problem is badly needed.

A brief background! 

There are 2 main causes for the decay and degeneration of scientific research at modern universities: (1) the academic institutions, and (2) the research grant system.  Both of these are happy with the resulting consequences of their bad policies and actions.

Why do these bodies operate like that?  All the many expenses of doing research must be paid by someone.  For academic institutions, research grants are the usual source for funding their scientific studies.  In recent times, that reality has expanded into the rule that getting and renewing research grants is the main job for members of the science faculty.  Research grants provide a very welcome solution to the financial woes plaguing modern universities.  The overwhelming importance of research grants has transformed universities into businesses where money is everything.  Research accomplishments are only the means to increase financial profits at these businesses (i.e., getting more money is the true goal, and research is not directly valued).

The current research grant system is very happy to be awarding billions of dollars every year to support scientific research.  By sponsoring all these research studies, the large federal agencies issuing research grants achieve: (1) approval from the both the public and scientists for supporting research, and, (2) acquisition of ever increasing power to control, influence, and regulate which investigations can be done and by whom.  On the surface, everything with university science and the research grant system seems quite fine, but if one peers more deeply then hidden problems become apparent (see:  “Science has been Murdered in the United States, as Proclaimed by Kevin Ryan and Paul Craig Roberts!” ).

How does the university money system work to cause such bad effects? 

A previous dispatch examined details about how research grants are used in modern universities (see: “Three Money Cycles Support Scientific Research” ).  Study that article and you will then comprehend how the causes and their effects lead to the degradation of university science.

Getting a research grant renewed involves winning a competition between all faculty scientists.  Many applications from science faculty are not successful!  The resulting struggle to win funding is so deep and so time-consuming that I term it a hyper-competition (see: “All About Today’s Hyper-Competition for Research Grants” ).  I believe that the vicious effects of this hyper-competition bothers faculty researchers more than anything else in their job environment.

What happens to individual faculty scientists who are ‘temporarily between grants’ (i.e., not funded!)?  Lab space assignment soon is cancelled and graduate students must leave.  Teaching assignments often are increased.  All work time must be spent on trying either to get funded again, or to find a new employment in a science-related job.  Professional reputation diminishes.  Job satisfaction decreases, as anger, disappointment, and frustration all increase.

Many science faculty now must spend much more time working on research grant applications than they do with work in their lab!  Obtaining a new grant or a renewal award means that a faculty scientist then can pay rent for their lab space, pay salaries for their graduate students and postdocs, buy needed research supplies, and, hope to get promoted and tenured.  But, as long as the hyper-competition continues, it: (1) elicits dismay at the status of science, (2) encourages corruption and dishonesty, (3) generates  immense pressure to worry about the future, and, (4) precludes trust and collegiality with faculty research collaborators, since everyone must compete with everyone else.  This hyper-competition is getting worse in 2016.

Why is nothing done to resolve this big problem? 

Both universities and the federal research grant system think the current status is just wonderful!  Thus, neither wants to make any changes!  Most faculty scientists working  on research at universities, medical schools, and research institutes are quite aware of these problems, but almost all remain quiet since they are afraid to hurt their chances to obtain renewal of their research grant(s).  Although their lack of action is readily rationalized, they have been transformed from researchers into employees in a business; actually, they are slaves to the research grant system.  High-level administrators employed at the research grant agencies also are aware of the problems described above, but cannot speak out without getting a reputation as being troublesome or even disloyal; similarly, high administrators at education centers are kept silent by the recognition that profits from research grant awards are paying their own salary.

Who and what are left?  Science societies represent very numerous scientists who feel the bad effects of this problematic situation, but they prefer to remain silent and uninvolved.  Hence, in 2016 we are left only with the public!  The general public in the U.S. unfortunately is estranged from science and research;  for most adults, scientific research is only an entertaining amusement!  It does not matter to them that basic science is diminishing and research quality is being subverted.  Thus, the public is very unlikely to become active about the current dreadful problems in university science.

Is there no hope at all for the future? 

Wrong!  One very wonderful change has occurred recently!  Several billionaire philanthropists (see:  “James E. Stowers” , “Paul G. Allen” , and “Yuri Milner” ) recently and separately established dedicated research institutes and unusual support programs that remodel how researchers work and are funded. By removing most causes of the problems with university science,  academic scientists are liberated.  For setting up a new model for conducting and funding scientific research, see my recent reports on “Stowers-2” , “Allen-2 “, and “Milner-2” .  Changes made by these visionaries are revolutionary and dramatically oppose the present misguided practices at universities and the federal research grant system.

These changes should  enable more strong research breakthroughs by freeing some research scientists from the shackles imposed on most of their counterparts in universities.  With that new freedom, these fortunate researchers will prove that the badly needed changes work in practice; this new model illustrates what is right or wrong with current university science.

Concluding remarks! 

In 2016, there now is some hope that scientific research at universities could be rescued from total decay and death!  Saving university science won’t be easy, but certainly will be worth the effort!

 

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