When science goes wrong, horrid consequences can follow.
Last October contaminated steroids, meant to treat backache, sparked an outbreak of fungal meningitis. Forty people have now died. Forty families are without forty family members. And, as we have been reminded, this is just the tip of science’s misdeeds.
Which is why, here at Life on the Edge, we’d be a purely theoretical group of scientists. If we were to follow such a calling. Because you can make massive, startling, stomach-churning, career-questioning errors. And no one gets hurt.
This week, for instance, theoretical science chalked up its biggest-ever mistake – if you measure mistakes as a volume of space. And yet…hardly anyone raised an eyebrow.
It was thought that quasar clusters could weigh-in at a maximum of 1.2 billion light years. Turns out some scientists discovered there’s a 4 billion light year monster in our skies. Which gives them two choices – ditch Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Or revise how big we think the universe is. By an infeasibly large amount.
Guess which they chose? Seemingly without much thought.
So now we’re sitting in a universe that’s one hell of a lot bigger than the one we lived in last week. Does this not strike anyone else as slightly disconcerting? Especially if one remembers what the previous size of the universe was used for in a locked room with Zaphod Beeblebrox.
But actually, the mistake speaks of the fragility of theory. Which, of course, is a good thing. It’s how science works.
But out there in the world of business, where we’re slogging it out, slapping each other round the face with metaphorical wet kippers, we rather suspect that fragility of theory is exactly the opposite of what you need. Innovators become innovators because they’re driven to win at all costs. You have to be so self-possessed with your self-righteousness that you think selling that spare grandmother is entirely justified. Which is exactly why Zaphod survived that locked room.
And which might explain why everyone’s feeling that The Future no longer belongs to Apple. Sure, Steve Jobs was kinda hip, cool and a bit of a father figure to us tech-heads. But we knew of his inner steel, perfectionism and bullying tendencies. Clearly he loved to win. He’d have survived the room, convinced of his significance in a might-as-well-be-infinite universe.
But Jobs is no longer at the helm. And we’re feeling that Google doesn’t really have the chops either – now it’s big and bloated. So it was weird to see them top the list of the world’s most innovative companies. That report’s definitely based on the rusty rearview mirror rather than Brian Cox’s radio telescope of future-gazing. Although perhaps Apple And Google disprove the winning-at-all costs theory?
Because if Dell can start to convince people that they’ll be a radical innovator again, then who knows? Perhaps we can all read this and create the Next Big Thing (NBT).
But what, exactly, is that going to be? Machines adopting human emotions are clearly on the way. But they’re far too far down the line for them to be ‘next’.
At the other extreme, Facebook has tried to position it’s new social search (powered by Bing) as the NBT. Lots of mutters that it was not. Some support for it being so. Yet given we now know that genetics can create social behaviours – in ants at least – perhaps we’re hardwired to start using it in our hundreds of millions?
And as behaviours can be socially infectious as well as inbred, it should be no surprise that environmental movement is finally gathering pace. From a practical, rather than activist, point of view at least. For it has been declared that the clean energy industry is now officially a ‘thing’. Quite a large $1billion thing, in fact.
So maybe saving ourselves is the next NBT. Or maybe it’s liquid metal, the type of which Arnie was made of in Terminator 2. Or maybe it’s libraries without books, the fabric that conducts power like wire and is 100 times stronger than steel or making petrol out of fresh air. Although perhaps not.
A bit further out we’ll certainly start to see NBT technology based on detectors so sensitive you can pick out a single molecule among billions. As well as nanotech that can manipulate heat as easily as light. And then create its own production lines.
But where’s this all heading? Faster-than-light travel turns out to have nothing visually worth looking at and we’re not certain we’d want to visit Nasa’s bouncy castle in space.
So maybe we need to look at the app that might rid teenagers of all that angst or the jeans that’ll moisturise your crotch (if you go commando). We wonder if IBM’s predicted that as a fashion trend yet? And if you make fireflies wear them around their nether-regions will they be able to give further assistance to the future of LED’s?
But if these are imponderables, then a question clearly in need of an urgent answer is this:
Obviously we won’t be surprised when we find out. Because improbable in the new normal. But it still feels important to unravel – and best not left to the conspiracy theorists.
So with Jobs and Beeblebrox both out of the frame, perhaps we should ask British celebrity physicist Brain Cox.
He might know. Theoretically.