Don’t be awed by discoveries like COVID vaccines and nuclear fusion technology. They’re outliers. Today’s scientific research is warmed-up leftovers
The good old days when something mind-blowing in a scientific paper would reveal something nobody knew and lead to a slew of stunning breakthroughs—well, those days are disappearing fast. Pic/A Dall-e 2 illustration
This week, I have great news for those among you who think that science sucks. I know you’re out there because you didn’t get vaccinated, you pop Ivermectin and you don’t wear masks. Well, you win. Science is not doing very well at all; it has been in decline for quite a while. You were just among the first to realise it.
How do I know this? Because, apparently, there just aren’t that many new ideas coming up through research these days. The good old days when something mind-blowing in a scientific paper would reveal something nobody knew and lead to a slew of stunning breakthroughs—well, those days are disappearing fast.
To come to this conclusion, three scientists, Michael Park, Erin Leahey and Russell J Funk, analysed six decades of data covering 45 million papers and 3.9 million patents. They ranked papers on a scale of whether they were Consolidative (re-confirming what was already known) or Disruptive (up-ending existing knowledge, replacing old rules with new ones). Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was disruptive. So was Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of the human DNA.
Between 1945 and 2010, the disruptiveness of scientific papers fell 91.9 per cent in the Social Sciences, and 100 per cent for Physical Sciences. New patents dropped 78.7 per cent for Computers and Communications, and 91.5 per cent for Drugs and Medical.
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Why? Because there’s just too much knowledge around. Google and ChatGPT know everything. Finding something new that no one knows requires too much education and expertise, and too much funding.
Drowning in instant knowledge, scientists everywhere are wading through the same millions of papers, scrabbling to find something unresearched. A bit like trying to decide which Netflix movie to stream.
Since a scientific paper is evaluated by the number of times it is cited, it’s safer to confirm old knowledge than to rock the boat with new knowledge. There are more incentives for incremental science rather than high-risk projects that “are more likely to fail, but which are the fuel for future breakthroughs”, according to a 2020 study.
Don’t get awed by recent discoveries like the COVID-19 vaccines and nuclear fusion technology. They’re outliers in a world of diminishing research; the bulk of today’s science is warmed up leftovers.
You’re probably wondering what trivial, pointless crap they’re studying these days. Here are some peeks into some recent wingdingers.
The bigger a doorknob, the more fingers you will need to grab it. Japanese industrial design researchers discovered this mind-bending fact by asking 32 participants to turn 47 assorted doorknobs. Who knew?
Vanilla essence can be extracted from cow pats. In what can only be described as a breath-stopping victory for cow-worshippers, a group of Japanese scientists found that vanillin, the flavouring and aromatic compound extracted from the vanilla bean, can be extracted just as easily by cooking cow poop. The boffins took a gram of cow pat with some water and heated it in a reactor up to 300°C under high pressure for 60 minutes, analysing the chemical composition of the sludge with a gas chromatograph. At 200°C, they hit gold and detected vanillin. A single gram of cow dung is good for 50 micrograms of vanilla. Great success!
Four hundred and twenty seven different species of bacteria live and thrive on chewed-up chewing gum on the streets of Singapore. This is a stunning win for that city, making it a world leader in bacterial colonisation of chewing gum. The research involved collecting eight different kinds of chewed-up chewing gum from the streets of Greece, France, Spain, Turkey and Singapore, and extracting genetic information from an advanced sequencing process.
If the earth was made of blueberries, things would go badly. This planet-changing research comes to us from Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute. If our planet was somehow replaced in an instant with an equal volume of closely packed but uncompressed blueberries, physics as we know it would come unhinged. In the drastically reduced gravity of Planet Blueberry, you’d weigh about 87 per cent less. While you rejoiced, the berries would collapse under their own weight, squeezing out the inter-berry air. The berries would implode eventually, creating a planet of blueberry jam that would heat up to 143°C as the collapse continued. Oceans of boiling jam would form, turning the atmosphere fruity and blue.
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Knives made of frozen poop don’t work very well.
Uranus smells like rotten eggs.
My favourite research breakthrough is in a league by itself, the kind of topic only a complete genius—or unutterable idiot—could have thought of. Logitech launched a Global Remote Control Trends study, spending tens of thousands of dollars to probe the number one question that haunts us all: where is that darned remote? The findings were eye-popping.
There’s a nearly 50 per cent chance that your TV remote is stuck between the sofa cushions!
You can reach C Y Gopinath at firstname.lastname@example.org
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The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper