A Little Bit Of Science History Repeating Itself: Boyle’s List

In a recent blog post, [Benjamin Breen] makes an interesting case that 2023 might go down in history as the start of a scientific revolution, and that’s even if LK-99 turns out to be a dud. He points to several biomedical, quantum computing, and nuclear fusion news items this year as proof.

However, we aren’t as convinced that these things are here to stay. Sure, LK-99 was debunked pretty quickly, but we swim in press releases about new battery technologies, and new computer advances that we never hear about again. He does mention that we aren’t alone in thinking that as [Tyler Cowen] coined the phrase “Great Stagnation” to refer to the decline in disruptive tech since 1945. Still, [Benjamin] argues that people never know when they live through a scientific revolution and that the rate of science isn’t as important as the impact of it.

That makes sense. Who cares if you develop 100 new ways to make resistors every year? But develop a transistor, and you change everything. To make his case, [Benjamin] points to [Robert Boyle], the famous scientist from the 1660s. Actually, we should call him a natural philosopher since the word scientist wasn’t in use in the 1660s. He had a list of things science should develop. [Benjamin] took the liberty of marking how many of these we have now. Some of these are obvious, and we have them. Flying, for example. Some things we don’t really have, like “curing wounds at a distance.” Unless you count telemedicine, but we don’t think that’s what he meant.

Some of the items, though, are puzzling. The final item on the handwritten list reads, “Varnishes perfumable by rubbing.” We suppose you could consider this “scratch and sniff,” but why would [Boyle] be interested in this and put it on the same list as flight, perpetual light, and optical lenses?

[Breen] points out that while [Boyle] was a famous scientist, his wish list didn’t include things like the telegraph or the steam engine. While he didn’t know it, he lived on the cusp of a great scientific age.

But are we living through the same sort of fundamental changes now? Everyone says yes. Quantum computers and AI will change everything. But then, they said that about the Segway, memristors, and blockchain, too. But we do agree that we don’t know what the next big thing is until after it has been here a while.

Predicting the future is always precarious, though we still try. In fact, apparently, people really want telemedicine.

24 thoughts on “A Little Bit Of Science History Repeating Itself: Boyle’s List

  1. For example, scientists have found based on large-diameter binary stars, that modified Newtonian dynamics might be correct. This eliminates the need for “Dark Matter”, which I always found was a bit like epicycles, trying to make the data fit the theory.
    But then, I was never a theoretician, and left academia with a master’s to pursue something where I could actually work.

    1. You can say the same about modified Newtonian dynamics – the modifications were specifically introduced to fit the data.

      We have several clues that dark matter is the real deal. For example, the rotation of outer stars of galaxies and collisions of superclusters can only be explained by dark matter.

      1. First you use “dark matter” wrong. Then you use it right.
        Dark matter is not the name of stuff. It’s not like “carbon” or “plasma”.
        Dark Matter is “Everything that is causing what we observe to be different than what we expect”.

        If I have $10,000 in my bank account when I wake up, spend $100, then I check my bank account and see i have $9,844 what happened?
        Dark Matter.

        If I later learn how to check my charges, I can see my phone bill of $53.28 got paid. That accounts for most of the discrepancy, but not all of it.
        There is still $2.72 of Dark Matter.

        Maybe my calculations are wrong.
        Maybe the ATM is wrong.
        Maybe something else is happening.
        Maybe it’s a combination.

        That’s what Dark Matter is.

        1. That‘s pettyfoggery.
          Dark matter could also be the name of stuff. Sterile neutrinos or super symmetric counterparts to the weak bosons (neutralinos) might be good candidates for dark matter.

          In theoretical physics dark matter is everything that does not electromagnetically interact with other stuff. We don’t know what it is exactly, but we have a pretty good understanding how it interacts with other matter.

          So yeah, dark matter is the general term for stuff we are not sure about, but we have also well motivated candidates for dark matter that we can call „dark matter“.

    2. Epicycles persisted not because they thought that reality worked that way, but because it was far simpler maths than the alternatives, and gave good enough results as long as your concern was predicting seasons, when to plant corn, and the odd planet alignment or eclipse. When you’re plotting the path for voyager, you need a more accurate model.

      1. Epicycles, like dark matter, are a case of multiplying entities in an attempt to get out of perceived heavy lifting. Stone Cold SBK5 said so. The Greeks knew about ellipses but it took Kepler to figure out their role in planetary orbits.

        We’ve had predictions of solstices and equinoxes (in stone) both long before and completely without epicycles, e.g. Stonehenge, New Grange, that stepped pyramid temple in Central (South?) America where the shadow cast looks like a snake, -> Kukulkan at Chichen Itza, Chaco Canyon Sun Dagger.

        With that and the ability to count days you’re well on your way to predicting the seasons and knowing when to plant corn. The Indians of the Americas did quite well for quite a while in that department. If you mean corn in the older European sense of “grain” the same holds. Epicycle schmeggegecycle.

        The first eclipse prediction was in 585 BC, 2 centuries before the introduction of epicycles.

        From further down: Franklin chose not to patent his inventions (“That, as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.”),

        Tesla held 112 patents in the U.S. and ~300 worldwide. The Cold Fusion and EmDrive/Resonant Cavity Thruster guys “just ceasing” would be good examples of the “system” working.

        Psychic researcher Andrija Puharich has patented a device for separating hydrogen from oxygen in water, using “frequencies”. Clearly “the system” didn’t crush him.

    3. I’ve always thought that dark matter was like luminiferous ether, it seems like a good way to make facts fit your theories, but when you get better theories you don’t need it.

  2. Social changes are the big fundamental developments in the past several decades. We will have to wait and see what the second-order effects of these inventions are (just as the industrial revolution had dubious effects, such as bringing our life-support system to its knees in only a few generations).
    We won’t psychologically be able to see it for some time. We, like the fish, still don’t notice the water around us. We certainly don’t notice it getting more and more acidic, dissolving all bonds.
    The most immediate effect of AI is going to be that it does to the so-called information economy what industrialized shipping lanes did to factory workers. The middle class will take another huge hit. Welfare systems will either greatly expand or savagely collapse. Both will be very violent for people living inside of them.
    I personally think that quantum computing will elude practical applications for several decades, much like nuclear fusion already has. Those are just my personal gambles, I don’t expect to evangelize them and I might be extremely wrong.

    1. Social changes are indeed the biggest. Technology gave us faster ways to move and communicate, cheaper ways to create things and food, and more ways to heal people. But that’s about it. Social changes gave us new ways to tax us, censor us and control us. Social credit score, CBDC, AI surveillance….

  3. >are we living through the same sort of fundamental changes now?

    We have been since the Industrial Revolution. At that time the pace of change shot up rapidly and became the status quo.

    When the Information Revolution hit, the pace of change accelerated again. And again it became the status quo. We now see innovation after innovation and simultaneously think “why aren’t innovations in battery technology keeping up with other technologies?” and “when did someone invent this new thing that I never saw before?”

    And now AI has just amped up the pace again, to the point where it’s churning out new rearrangements of things so fast we barely have time to filter the useful ideas from the dreck.

    Yes, we’re living in a time of frenetic change. Which itself is a fundamental shift in the acceleration of the rate of change.

  4. I blame the assorted patent systems around the world that have been abused to the point of discouraging applied science(tech development) through the fear of costly litigation for the stagnation we have been experiencing for decades, if not a century – even in the fundamental sciences. Many patents are held by “collectors” that do no true development and only live on through the proceeds of litigation. These are the “patent trolls”.

    Another problem is the technique pioneered by Thomas Edison and carried on by modern corporate entities is “innovation administration”; gathering groups of developers together and taking credit for their work through employment contracts and NDA’s, collectively disincentivizing an individual with an idea from pursuing further development as there will be little to no direct financial rewards for their efforts. How many Tesla’s and Franklin’s have there been recently that have gotten chewed up by “the system” and just ceased in their efforts? Tesla’s story is a stark reminder of how this works and the ensuing personal and entrepreneurial strife that can result. A cautionary tale.

    1. I think you severely underestimate the effort it takes to make progress.

      It took Edison a few years and the assistance of a lab full of people to develop a practical electric light bulb. A light bulb is a simple piece of primitive technology when compared with almost any piece of modern technology.

      Just as a simple example:
      My son in involved in the Formula Student (https://www.formulastudent.de/fsg/) racing team at the university he attends. The goal is to design build a small race car according to the standards and regulations set up by the Formula Student organisation. This year’s team consists of 100 students. This is designing and building a car using existing technology – no research or development of new methods or materials.

      It takes a team to do most anything these days. It isn’t a question of individual abilities. It is the requirement of a wide range of knowledge and skills. No single person can learn all the needed things and all the needed skills.

      People have to work together. They have to break the task down into smaller pieces and work on them. At some point, a large task is broken into pieces small enough for one or two people to have all the skills and knowledge needed to accomplish that piece.

  5. Telemedicine is here to stay. Don’t you call your practician to send you a new receipt or to tell you if your kid’s fever is still in the acceptable range? We all do.

    1. I love to be able to send my practician a message now thay I went through an MRSA infection and made 8 visits to my doctor in 2.5 months, would’ve been double that if I could not just send her a photo and get her response “Just keep it clean with the shower” or “I want to check on that, come in ASAP”.

    2. Basic stuff that aren’t critical can be done over phones or internet. They still can’t help you if you (for example) accidentally chop off your hand during hard light saber duel, you still got to go see a doctor about that stump on your arm.

    3. A good parent would have a book (imagine a power outage) or would have asked that question previously. Or would make a decision based on hisers own experience with fevers.

  6. i think the narrative around big changes can be cluttered up by irrelevant hype.

    take blockchain…people said it would “change everything”, and i don’t know what that hype was even supposed to represent…imagine i have a blockchain card instead of a credit card in my wallet? is that even a change? the only change i notice is i tap my card now instead of sliding it in a slot, which itself is barely worth noticing except if you forget then you hold up the line at the check out.

    but git is blockchain, and it didn’t change everything, but it sure changed the way i track changes! i take the features of git for granted now. i assume it will be displaced at some point, maybe even in my own life, but anything that hopes to dethrone it will have to build on that blockchain revolution. and anyone building a journalling database these days, especially for certain sectors of users, will be meditating on blockchain as well. it changed how we solve these kinds of problems.

    same with segway. the brand might be a flop but there are a bunch of derivatives and you see them on the street or flying down the aisles at the grocery or under your christmas tree. and the underlying capacities of self-balancing (feedback control, real-time sensing, extremely high torque brushless motors, intuitive control mechanism based on interacting with your body’s intrinsic feedback systems) are *all over*, they aren’t even newsworthy anymore because the segway already opened that door.

    i think the only thing slowing down in the last decade or so is our appreciation, our ability to feel awe.

  7. [The final item on the handwritten list reads, “Varnishes perfumable by rubbing.” We suppose you could consider this “scratch and sniff,” but why would [Boyle] be interested in this and put it on the same list as flight, perpetual light, and optical lenses?]

    What was the state of personal hygiene back in those days?

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