Towards Blue-sky Research
The origin of life. The beginning and end of the universe. The workings of the brain. These are questions for blue-sky research. Trying to understand the syntax of our genes; finding out where our species came from and where it is heading; attempting to understand and manipulate the structure of matter so as to reshape the world into its original state or upgrade to a more comfortable level; charting the journey of particles that came from other galaxies to assemble in multi-cell colonies on the third planet of an unremarkable star, where quite surprisingly consciousness was born. All this is the realm of blue-sky research, undoubtedly the most rewarding of human enterprises: science at its purest and grandest, the original homo habilis quest to understand the universe and its place in it.
Blue-sky science is the cradle of the impulsive, the involuntary, the serendipitous. Unlike engineering projects run by efficiently managed teams, creative blue-sky research is a bit messy. It is the playground of the gifted dreamers who massage revolutionary ideas in think tanks and sometimes make paradigms shift (but hardly ever reap the rewards from it). For the moment there is a big difference in approach towards this blue-blood discipline. America has realized that it is imperative to relieve this kind of research from the burden of paperwork and reporting that is stifling innovation. Is it not better to spend less time justifying research and more time doing it ? To our knowledge, Starlab is the first comprehensive blue-sky think tank in Europe and it is our sincere hope that more will soon follow.
Are you a lion or a tiger ?
Desmond Morris observed that the rulers of the animal kingdom like the lion and the eagle adapt well when taken from the wild. Give them enough food and a warm shelter and they will live happily and produce many offspring. But tigers, wolves and apes are difficult, temperamental. They never stop exploring and investigating, they have to be on the move. This may be the basic difference between an engineer and a scientist.
Is this the end of science ?
There is a lot of speculation about this, basically because we arrive at the end of a millennium and books about the end of everything we know sell well. You will not be surprised to learn that we do not believe that it is the end of science (not in the least, because this would end our search and pronounce our existence futile).
However in his controversial book The End of Science John Horgan argues that we have entered an era of diminishing returns. According to him the greatest barrier to the progress of future science has been its past success: scientists have found the four forces of nature (electromagnetism, gravity, strong and weak nuclear force) and have been equally successful in probing the microrealm of quarks and the macrorealm of galaxies.
Sometimes it may look as though we have arrived at the limits of our knowledge, but there is still so much to be discovered. Particle physicists are still looking for the final theory of matter and energy, cosmologists do not agree how and why our universe was created, evolutionary biologists cannot explain how life is created, neuroscientists are at a loss for what consciousness is and chaoplexiologists (explorers of chaos and complexity) still have not found the shortcut they have been looking for. The only thing that seems to be stopping us to go further is the inability to use experimental, empirical techniques to prove the theory. Moreover, it is true that the more we proceed, the more we find it necessary to impose limits on what we can know. For the transfer of information or matter we cannot go faster than light (Einstein-special relativity). We can either know the position or the momentum of a particle (uncertainty Heisenberg) in quantum mechanics, we cannot go out of a system and so never find unexpected truths (Gödel incompleteness theorem) and evolutionary biology keeps on reminding us that we are of no use to our genes living past 40 years of age. To all probability we will always have to be content with partial truths. And even if one day we discover the last piece of the puzzle, we will probably be incapable of understanding it.
We shall not cease from exploration
(T.S Eliot, Little Gidding, Four Quartets)