January 24, 2016

SCHULMAN | The New Way to Invent Things

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I wanted to start the semester with a crazy observation: Science is only like 300 to 350 years old. People have been investigating literature, math, philosophy and government since the bronze age. Isn’t science as important as any of these subjects?

I could see why someone might think my observation isn’t a big deal. To be fair, people have been curious about the physical world for more than 300 years. Penicillin, the internal combustion engine and refrigeration are all barely 100 years old. There are also crazy things going on right now: The Republican presidential nominee  will probably be a psychopath, and the stock market crashed a few days ago. Maybe I should be more preoccupied with those things.

But I’m not. Why did it take so long for people to learn about the world by observing it formally? It is mind boggling. The internal combustion engine, penicillin and refrigeration are all so young because we needed science to invent them. Science has driven nearly all of the marvels of recent history because inventing involved tinkering with the physical world through science. What if that won’t always be the case?

What if it already isn’t the case? Think about some of the most important inventions of the past 20 years: social media, peer-to-peer file sharing, the Internet. These things are software programs. Our understanding of the physical world doesn’t immediately contribute to the development of software. Software is the opposite of tangible. It is an abstraction. Unlike the internal combustion engines or vaccines, knowing more about the physical world doesn’t necessarily make software better.

In fact, sometimes knowing less is better. Think about your cellphone. Does knowing about its internal workings help you use it? Knowing that your phone is a collection of transistors encoding data as high or low charges doesn’t help you make a call. People use sliders, home screens and buttons to make calls. However, sliders, home screen and buttons are just concepts we made up. They have nothing to do with the physical world yet they are incredibly useful.

Now, I know you’re going to object. You should. Obviously, software is not only about abstraction. Hardware is incredibly important to software. Software obviously gets better as transistors get smaller and require less power. Knowing about electromagnetism, a branch of physics, generally makes hardware design easier.

However, there’s a reason people separate software from hardware. As long as the abstractions are consistent, the underlying mechanisms don’t matter. For example, two computers that manipulate transistors using slightly different electrical processes can run the same software programs. In fact, a computer which encodes data using the spin of an electron can still run some of the same software as a computer with transistors (Google quantum computing, if you’re interested).

So don’t misinterpret my argument. I’m not saying science isn’t important — because it is — and I’m not saying science can’t make the world better — because it can. I’m also not saying there isn’t an interplay between the physical sciences and abstractions like software. That would just be wrong and stupid. If you want to hear that kind of rhetoric, you are better off watching the Republican primary debate.

What I’m saying is that scientists used to have a monopoly on the whole inventing thing. The easiest way to invent something used to require things like test tubes, needles and the like. However, that’s no longer the case. These days, the easiest way to invent something is to get a computer. I don’t know about you, but I find that crazy. That’s my schtick and I’m sticking to it. Welcome back and stay tuned alternating Mondays this Spring for more!