Friday, April 8, 2016

Basic Science - Every Bit As Important As Applied

It is no secret that those of us who've pursued research in pure science or pure physics have caught flack for it, in the sense of skeptics questioning the work's practical value or why any of it ought to be funded at all. In my case, with solar physics, at least the basic aspects -  entailing plasma physics and magnetohydrodynamics - it soon becomes clear to even the most hidebound "practical" obsessive that the prediction of solar flares and related events has enormous import for the planet.

For example, a powerful CME directed at Earth could - given the right circumstances - knock out the entire system of electrical grids not to mention our GPS system. Hence, a lot of my work has had to do with refining the levels of solar prediction. One particularly critical contribution appeared in the Solar -Terrestrial Predictions (Meudon) Workshop Proceedings.  This entailed the specialized area of statistical limitations on flare forecasts, and specifically how Poisson statistics play a role in such forecasting. My paper ‘Limitations of Empirical-Statistical Methods of Solar Flare Prognostication’ appeared on pp. 276-284 of the Proceedings and received much attention from the other contributors - since of course it impacted in multiple ways on their work as well.

The project itself saw the input of more than 200 solar and space physicists and consumed more than 6 years in its actual research which covered virtually every aspect of solar- terrestrial interactions, including long, short and medium solar forecasting, geomagnetic activity, auroral activity and ionospheric disturbances.

Given this background, I was certain when I read Matt Ridley's WSJ piece (from October last year) entitled 'The Myth Of Basic Science', he'd have pooh-poohed this mammoth work as a lot of time wasting. The reason is that Ridley's emphasis was on the practical and the value of practical science to a commercial society. He didn't even accept that basic physics, for example, underpins most of our modern technology from GPS navigation systems to HDTVs, and CD players.  As one critic of his article aptly put it in a follow up letter: "Without the very abstract general theory of relativity your GPS navigation system wouldn't work. Without the abstract ideas of quantum mechanics we wouldn't have lasers and CD players."

But that myopia, I submit, is precisely because of the inadequate nature of most liberal arts education which fails to show the nexus of our technological devices to basic physics principles. I even attribute a lot of the blame to introductory physics course themselves. Ridley, however, as a former scientist - has much less excuse to make light of basic research, or to write it off as mostly irrelevant as he did.

While it is all very well to pump investment into hot tech startups and pour venture capital into  new gimmicks which might lure the unwary - caution ought to be the byword Also, asking the question: To what degree have basic research principles been followed? A case in point has been the much touted Theranos blood drop analysis diagnostic test, which recently has been found to be wanting in accuracy when held up to scrutiny.

Incredibly, founder Elizabeth Holmes' secret Silicon Valley startup had managed hitherto to avoid the glare of peer-reviewed independent testing that compares results to those of other labs like Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp. But one cynical reason is that its investors so desperately wanted it to be A-ok they didn't want to look too hard. I mean, what's not to like about a diagnostic test that only requires a pin prick and a few drops of blood to get a whole lipid panel done, not to mention a PSA and a1C test too? And without having to endure a syringe stab into a vein with whole tubes of blood being drawn?

But last week the hidey ho came to an abrupt end as  Mount Sinai researchers showed that cholesterol results were an average of 9.3% lower than those done by the other competitor labs. In fact, a 121 page Medicare (CMS) report revealed the company's proprietary Edison device yields unacceptably inaccurate and highly erratic results for a number of critical blood tests.

So much for the wave of the future! At least for now and maybe forever. But what needs to be processed  is the fact that perspective was lost in the midst of all the hype and hoopla about the great "technological breakthrough". I submit that had the Theranos' genii done more basic science first they could well have avoided all the later pitfalls, and the embarrassing  inaccuracies exposed with the recent tests. Because true basic science research might well have revealed that the whole  concept - given the nature of the device used- was mostly pie in the sky.  Perhaps those like Matt Ridley would do well to dwell on the word of another letter writer, Leon N.Cooper - winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1972:

"Investment in fundamental science is a necessary precondition for future technological innovation'"

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