The next scientific revolution, in the Holyland?

“A short history of nearly everything” by Bill Bryson is not just another fun book by the American author. For scientific dummies like me, he somehow manages to explain most simply molecules and rocks and lasers and elements and much more.

For once in my life I have understood these words – all be it briefly, until Bryson starts to develop another new subject. And then I forget what I had just learnt.

But Bryson makes a very interesting point. Many scientists at the beginning of the previous millennium thought that chemistry and physics had reached its limits. One hundred years later – plus an extra atom bomb, moon landing and microelectronics industry later – we have begun to appreciate the meaning of progress.

The past 2 decades have seen amazing changes. Living in Israel, it is a pleasure to be part of the push to achieve more, particularly in communications technology. Just look at 2 “innocent” items in this morning’s economic press.

  • Provigent has been picked as Israel’s most promising start up in 2010. It provides best-of-breed system-on a-chip (SoC) solutions to vendors of broadband wireless equipment. Wireless products will be working quicker very shortly.
  • Modu is to launch the lightest yet mobile phone, which can be customized for personal use.

Go to a mobile conference and Hebrew will be one of the main languages heard.

But where is the next scientific revolution going to come from? Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Tony Hey talks of the “Fourth Paradigm”, following experiment, theory and computation:

….instead of developing programs based on known rules, scientists begin with the data. They direct programs to mine enormous databases looking for relationships and correlations, in essence using the programs to discover the rules. We consider big data part of the solution, not the problem. The fourth paradigm isn’t trying to replace scientists or the other three methodologies, but it does require a different set of skills. Without the ability to harness sophisticated computer tools that manipulate data, even the most highly trained expert would never manage to unearth the insights that are now starting to come into focus.

In the language of a layman, we are talking about predictive models. This can impact on all the sciences; if and when somebody will fall ill, changes in meteorological conditions, money movements, and more.

But there is another factor, which Hey only begins to hint at towards the end of his article. Collaboration; to get the most out of this new approach, the sciences will have to mix, a trend not always present in the twentieth century scientific history

With Google, Siemens, Intel and the like having major r&d centres in countries like Israel and India, that is a step in the right direction. They are looking for a broader (and cheaper) approaches to new issues. As Hey recognizes, sofware powerhouse Microsoft’s health group is another important element in the equation.

For Israel, the encouraging theme is the result of the start up competition mentioned above. The top 10 winners came from a range of new industries – right in to nanotech. This mixing approach – not concentrating on one sector – bodes good news for the future.

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