Monday, August 13, 2012

Instrumentalism and transformative research

Sabine Hossenfelder has a thought provoking posting about what she calls transformative research. I wrote a comment bringing in a concept that has helped in my attempts to understand what went wrong in the basic philosophy underlying our collapsing techno-civilization and what might be the basic reason for the deep stagnation in theoretical physics and lack of progress even at the level of fundamentals at some other branches of science such as theoretical biology and theoretical neuro-science. I attach my comment below.

Hi Bee,

thank you for a nice analysis. I have pondered a lot about the possibility of supporting transformative research.

It would be wonderful if transformative research could be somehow identified, supported, and even induced by some actions. I am skeptic about the possibility of this kind of control. Conservatism characterizes academic environment but maybe at deeper level this conservatism derives from the basic character of science that I would call instrumentalism, seeing the external world as an instrument to achieve goals.

Instrumentalism permeates every corner of science. For researchers the specialization is an instrument for building a career with a good social status. Scientific institutions in turn use scientists as instruments and drive them to work like mad in the hope of getting the ultimate recognition. Our technology is manipulation of Nature seen as a passive storage of various resources to be harnessed. Global economy has become the tool of large scale venturers to achieve personal profits using the latest information technology for their purposes. Instrumentalism is the key ideology of our technological civilization born in industrial revolution and probably living its last decades before the final collapse caused by instrumentalism taken to extreme.

Even the well-intentioned idea that it might be possible to fasten the progress of science by some mechanisms encouraging transformative research could be seen as one aspect of instrumentalism.

I see transformative research as the spiritual aspect of science. Whatever spiritual is, it is not instrumental and is also beyond control. When I enjoy the beauty of sunrise I just experience: I am not planning how to make money by arranging guided tours for those who want to pay for experiencing the sunrise and perhaps buy a drink to enhance the experience. Transformative research cannot be controlled. Transformative research is initiated by an non-predictable spark of genius which just occurs. What follows is mostly hard work and is indeed rather predictable process. I however find it hard to believe that academic community would identify some-one doing this kind of hard work as a transformative researcher deserving support: the labeling as academic village fool is a more probable reaction;-). Our luck is that the support is un-necessary. Transformative idea creates so immense motivation that the only manner that academic world can stop the process is by killing the transformative researcher;-).

Addition: An example of transformative research is the work of Vladimir Voevodsky in Motivic Homotopy Theory. Voevodsky has given a wonderful lecture understandable even to a layman like me. He represents the basic ideas of homotopy reducing the construction of zeroth homotopy groups counting the disjoint components of space - something very concrete - for a hierarchy of spaces obtained as space, loop space associated with it (not quite so concrete thing;-), loop space associated with that, and so on... Then he notices that the zeroth homotopy group can be expressed in terms of purely categorical notions, and then applies the resulting formalism to what he calls algebraic systems where the basic notions have very different content. Beautiful!


At 6:08 PM, Anonymous ◘Fractality◘ said...


When I think of transformative, I think of evolving to the next level of the dark matter/p-adic hierarchy ;)

At 8:23 PM, Anonymous Matti Pitkanen said...

Sounds sensible;-). If so transitions to the new level would become increasingly slower: the time for the transition would scale like hbar. Human lifetime however remains the same. Pity;-).

Speaking seriously, it is frustrating to see how irrational science in its conservatism (or perhaps better to say instrumentalism) is. Facts are staring directly to our face for decades but dogma prevents us to see them. For instance, in a <a href=">finnish discussion group</a> I was censored out as I dared to tell that the data about new particle at LHC are not quite consistent with the interpretation as standard model Higgs! Big Science is now what church was at middle ages.

At 11:43 AM, Blogger Ulla said...

Plato has this link.
The mission of the WLCG project is to provide global computing resources to store, distribute and analyse the ~25 Petabytes (25 million Gigabytes) of data annually generated by the Large Hadron Collider

At 1:14 PM, Blogger Stephen said...

Purdue's proposed detector uses a sample of manganese 54 which is monitored with a gamma-radiation detector as it decays into chromium 54. It's hoped that anomalies in the rate of decay would indicate forthcoming solar flares. A US patent has been filed to protect the idea.

The research has significant implications for science. To date, the rate of radioactive decay is understood to be constant. Further, the researchers hypothesize that it's neutrinos that are affecting the change in the rate of decay: an idea sure to turn heads.

"Since neutrinos have essentially no mass or charge, the idea that they could be interacting with anything is foreign to physics," Jenkins said. "So, we are saying something that doesn't interact with anything is changing something that can't be changed. Either neutrinos are affecting decay rate or perhaps an unknown particle is."

At 8:10 PM, Anonymous Matti Pitkanen said...

To Ulla:

Excellent opportunity to get drowned to data;-). It would be nice to have more personal contact with data but I am well aware of human limitations.

To Stephen:

This might be application of new physics before it is even admitted to exist! There are many experiments suggesting annual variation of nuclear reaction rates but they are simply dismissed.

My proposal for explanation is not in terms of interactions with neutrinos but in terms of a new physics associated with nuclei themselves. This new physics would predict fine structure of energy levels in keV scales, MeV (=1000 keV) is the scale for ordinary nuclear energy levels.

Incoming radiation from Sun would change the distribution of these energy levels which would have different reaction and decay rates and cause the variation of the average rates.

keV range might make itself visible also in cold fusion and would couple nuclear physics to atomic physics where also keV is rather usual energy scale.

Here we however encounter a deep taboo. The complete isolation of nuclear and atomic physics is one of the cherished taboos of physics as cold fusion people have bitterly learned. It cannot be challenged by experimental findings, and even less by theoretical proposals.

At 8:41 AM, Blogger Ulla said...


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