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Science in 2006

A former IBM chief scientist looks ahead from 1986 into the twenty-first century

Lewis Branscomb

Sharing Facilities

The other thing they were wistful about was, of course, the fact that everyone had to share this instrumentation with many others. In the old days you could call your apparatus your own. (Does anyone remember science in the days of "love and string and sealing wax," as Arthur Roberts's ballad of 1945 called it, when physicists built all their own apparatus from scratch?)

There were two reasons everyone had to share now. First, what chemist could get a grant big enough to pay for a dozen of these new tools, when each one cost a quarter of a million dollars? That was already happening back in 1986, and only a few lucky scientists in corporate laboratories, national laboratories, or special institutes commanded such facilities. In 2006 you share, or you can't compete.

There was another reason for sharing. The threads of different branches of science had become interwoven, rather like the strands of the DNA whose manipulation had motivated so much of the new instrumentation. Computer scientists were beginning to experiment with the biological replication of crystalline structures for storing data. Chemists were building atomic surface structures designed for catalysis at theoretical optimum rates of specific reactions. From a purely technical point of view, very few people could command the immense range of scientific and technical knowledge necessary to master the intricacies of such a broad spectrum of research tools. Scientific progress now depended on the use of the full range of tools available-from mathematics to biology.

Reintegration of the Sciences I: Neurophysiology, Brain Studies, and Cognitive and Behavioral Science

But a more profound change had transformed the character of the research community in 2006. To make important progress you not only had to master the tools of a broad range of disciplines; you had to draw on the ideas and points of view of many disciplines. To take just one example, scientists who had mastered the neuro-physiology of the brain-and had used tools like chemically specific NMR imaging to correlate biochemical activity with cognitive activity and behavior-were now beginning to make extraordinary progress in building a scientific model of the human brain in which physiology and personality were integrated in a reasonably well-understood way. The benefits promised to be immense for addressing the causes and treatment of mental illness, identifying the driving forces of aggressive and self-destructive behavior, and helping computer scientists understand the human functions their inventions were designed to support or mimic. Neurophysiology, cognitive psychology, biochemistry, and behavioral science had all become engaged with the challenge to comprehend the human brain and mind.

Reintegration of the Sciences II: Cosmology, High-Energy Physics, Astrophysics and Mathematics

The same integration of several branches of science had occurred in other fields. In 2006 the ICY machine was still being debated by the politicians; the Malaysian delegate to the United Nations wanted assurance that any constituent particles of the quark that might be discovered would be declared the Common Heritage of Mankind. Meanwhile the SSC, still the workhorse of high-energy physics, had long ago proved to be a kind of time machine for exploring what happened during the first seconds of the most recent creation. The conceptual boundaries separating theoretical astrophysics from particle physics had long since vanished. But that was really already true back in 1986. The new news was the remarkable resurgence of pure mathematics as physicists rediscovered its power, ending a long estrangement stretching from the 1930s to the 1980s.

Reintegration of the Sciences III: Biochemistry, Medical Sciences, and Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology

Of course there were other areas of reintegration. Back in the 1960s there were so many biology societies, each with a journal, that the only way you could get your work read by biologists in some other subfield was to publish in Science. (Physicists and chemists frequently protested to Philip Abelson-still remembered twenty years later as that most distinguished editor of Science-that they had read their last article on the effects of genetic mutation on the mating habits of the rhinoceros beetle.) Some biologists, looking for a classic if more obscure place to publish without narrow disciplinary constraints, were even driven to publishing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

But by 1986 it was already clear that the fast track was the marriage of molecular biology to cellular and developmental biology. Biochemistry had already become indistinguishable from molecular biology. And by 2006, biology had not only reached out to embrace much of clinical medicine, but was well on its way to understanding the mechanisms for the genetic encoding of instinctive behavior. It was even able to use the new computers to predict the structures and energetics of complex molecules from calculations based on first principles. The tools of the biological engineer were also on every biologist's desk. The human genome had finally been mapped in a mammoth supercomputer project in the 1990s, and was now available for $9.99 on a CD-ROM disk that could be plugged into your 40 MIP personal computer.

Reintegration of the Sciences IV: Geophysics, Meteorology, Oceanography and Paleontology

The earth and planetary scientists were, of course, quick to point out that they were really the first to bind together the threads of scientific progress back in the period from 1960 to 1980, when they began to study the planets as integrated systems. They were no strangers to complexity. Geophysics, meteorology, and oceanography were very difficult areas of research. Even in the 1960s it was realized that you had to understand the coupling of the oceans and the atmosphere, and their roles as dynamic systems driven by the planetary heat engine, modified by terrestrial topology. The outstanding achievement of the era was the unraveling of plate tectonics, in which zoology and botany as well as geomagnetics, paleontology, and geology had played an important part. By 2006 this entire field of science was called simply planetary science. The last department of meteorology vanished in 1997. Weather forecasting was now done by automated sensors, with satellite data collection driving planetary simulations on supercomputers. Weather forecasters were trained in radio and television schools.

Reintegration of the Sciences V: Geography

Despite the enormous attention being paid to the reintegration of the sciences back in the late 1980s, everyone had forgotten that a universal subject in our high schools decades before had been geography. By the 1980s the only people you could find to lament the demise of geography were the trustees and staff of the National Geographic Society. They could not understand how the subject had ever slipped from the curriculum, since their society's magazine, with eight million member-subscribers, substantially outsold its rivals in other fields. The lay public still cared about geography, long after the pedants abandoned it.

By 2000, it was recognized that modern geography is the integrated view of man and his planet, the bringing together of ecology, the study of human habitats, geomorphology, social anthropology, and economics-in short, all the tools necessary to understand how human beings should view their fragile planetary home. Once again geography became a popular course of study in school, particularly since students were no longer required to memorize state capitals and map features. People carried such information with them in their pocket data banks.

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