Thursday, February 13, 2014

How Discoveries Progress in Society

One cannot "unsee" a lecture such as that which this author attended: informative, interesting, and most importantly, relatable. Given by André David Tinoco-Mendez of the CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire or European Council for Nuclear Research), the talk was about the relevance of experimental particle physics in society.

We can make a preliminary statement based on our introductory knowledge in particle physics and say that it is impossible for such a field to contribute to a better life in society. We can ask critical questions like, "How can such ultra-small particles, some of which are still begging proof for existence, help improve the economy of a third-world country?" and "Is it worthwhile to invest a large amount of our resources for such endeavors?"

The first part of the lecture has touched upon this subject by discussing the nature of science as a whole. Advancement basically requires taking risks, for progress usually comes from a highly unexpected source. This makes sense since innovation is supposed to be new—it is supposed to induce a change in society, for the better. The lecturer has given examples to illustrate this, such as the first appearances of electricity and the first computer of Babbage: they were first viewed as an after-dinner recreation. At their time of introduction, they seemed useless, but look how important they are now in our society.

We can liken therefore the science worker to a one who holds out a dim lamp in a maze of roads: one can only partially see one's path. Sometimes, when a fork shows, one can never tell the more advantageous way. That is why the lecturer has warned his audience of the psychological strength that is required of science workers—for (non verbatim)"once you come crashing with high speed to a dead end (referring to an error in one of the forks chosen), you have to be able to pick yourself up, pick up the pieces [of your work], and choose another way."

Because of its newness, society at first will withhold its support in one's endeavor, especially when it requires much resources and when the material does not show promising usefulness.

Then the innovation can be considered ubiquitous once society perceives its usefulness. The emphasized word is repeatedly used by the lecturer, used to describe something common or prevalent. It does not have to be really useful; we just have to be convinced that we need it. Here marketing is crucial, without undermining the importance of truth in advertising claims.

It is a vicious cycle of discovery (meaning: a new idea), innovation (a tangible invention based on the idea), and ubiquitous product, and this cycle usually moves toward the betterment of society according to the principles of natural selection.

As an example, the lecturer enumerated the evolution of our artificial light source. First, the discovery of fire brought the innovation of candles, which in turn made beeswax and animal fat ubiquitous. The latest turn of the cycle starts with the discovery of semiconductors to the innovation of LEDs, and hopefully in the near future, its ubiquity will be sped up by reducing its cost of production.


We go back to that last question we have regarding the usefulness of particle physics in society. Based on the discussion above, we can never tell if a discovery is useful or not until we have the innovation and until society learns to accept it. These are three separate phases of product development that usually takes time and lots of people to before progressing.
Take, as a particular example, the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson particle at the lecturer's laboratory. Physicists are particularly excited about this because this particle (pun intended) interacts with all the other particles—a feature that is never seen before. But engineers and teachers and the public in general will not appreciate it until another group of specialists come in and formulate an innovation out of it, and until yet another group present and distribute it to the rest of society.

We say it is inevitable for this discovery to be converted into an innovation, and eventually into a ubiquitous product, because we see the amount of human resources and earthly resources invested to discover it. That is, if the discovery has actual potential for conversion, which we can never tell outright from knowledge that such a discovery exists or even in the extensive knowledge of that discovery. It takes a lot more than mastery of the discovery to come up with an innovation.

Imagine all the member states funding for this endeavor, all for the containment of specialists in the field of nuclear physics in a laboratory which enables them to play with their toys without hurting anyone (as the lecturer has expressed in his talk). These activities have brought about advancements in fields such as imaging, either medical or for security purposes, wherein knowledge of the particles and their behavior with different materials are used to identify contents of luggage or tumors inside the body.

Another important contribution of CERN is the development of the World Wide Web, where back there it was originally intended to distribute the workload of calculating their model equations to computers all around the world. This we now know today as cloud computing.

To answer the second question posted at the start of this article: Is it worthwhile? We actually cannot put an absolute equivalent of worth in these products to validly compare with the amount of resources spent in the whole cycle of discovery, innovation, ubiquity. Would we rather sit in the darkness than explore the uses of fire, however dangerous it might be? Shall we stifle the insatiable curiosity of the person about his/her surroundings?

If we might notice, we see that the practical applications of these activities are rather minutely related to the original questions that these physicists try to answer (according to the website of CERN): What is the universe made of? When did it start?

It is exciting to think of the changes in society once they have fully answered these questions. In the meantime, we move onward through the cycle of discovery, innovation, and the contribution to society: a ubiquitous product.


CERN. (2014). About CERN. Retrieved from CERN:

David, A. (2014, January 29). Andre David's Curriculum Vitae. Retrieved from CERN website:

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