Saturday, 6 October 2007

The Next Big Question

Last week I attended the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research's Next Big Question event. It was an interesting idea, one which has fallen more out of fashion than I would have liked: a public lecture on scientific topics. Importantly, attendance was free, and although I recognised a substantial fraction of people in the audience (CIfAR is a funding body, from which many of my colleagues, including both my former and current graduate supervisors, have benefitted), there were a number of people from the community at large, and that was good to see. It was also interesting to hear their questions, which were good but which belied a general lack of understanding about the subjects at hand. This is a problem, of course, but it is exactly this sort of problem that public science lectures are meant to address.

The idea behind the event was to have representatives from different CIfAR programmes answer a (presumably CIfAR-chosen) "Big Question" pertinent to their research. Although there are around a dozen such "Big Questions", only three are posed at each event; the event "tours" major Canadian cities, with a different subset of "Big Questions" asked at each. All are available at the site, and there is much good food for thought there. The three "Big Questions" asked at this event (the first of the series -- so if you have the opportunity, you can still go to future events, and I would recommend it) were: "How do we build a quantum computer?", "What makes societies succeed?", and "How to microbes change the oceans?"

That the questions were chosen my CIfAR and not the speakers was obvious from the first talk, which was not so much about how to build a quantum computer (although that was covered) but why. It is an interesting topic, one about which I am now motivated to learn more, but still one very much in its infancy. A number of strategies proposed for building such computers was presented; the unit of measurement for quantum-computer memory is the quantum bit (or "qubit"), of which the most advanced design has twelve. The most promising technology currently has only managed to produce four. Considering that eight regular bits corresponds to one letter, that is not much, especially considering the scale of problems that these machines are hoped to tackle. Those problems are, of course, the (partial!) answer to the presenter's preferred question: why to build a quantum computer. These included applications in quantum mechanical models and in large-scale simulations, but perhaps the most compelling case was made for cryptography. A quantum computer can crack pretty much any code set up by a regular electronic computer, and it can set up codes that are completely uncrackable by the same technology (I do not recall whether they might be crackable by other quantum computers, though). Impressive stuff, indeed!

The next talk, on successful societies, was unusual even for this event. Not only was the question posed by CIfAR, but the group tasked to answer it was itself the result of CIfAR's own initiative, rather than (as is the more common case) some independent researcher putting together a proposal for the group. This group is impressively heterogeneous, comprising historians, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and even a biologist or two, and its focus is the same as the Big Question that its representative addressed: "What makes societies succeed?" Of course, such a question is impossible to answer without a definition of "success", and so far the group has spent much of its four years addressing just that, and how to identify it in any given society. I was pleased that the definition was not simply GDP or per-capita income: it had to do with education levels, access to health care, lifespan, and so on. Contrasts were drawn between different countries with similar historical and geographical circumstances but which have had different levels of success, and the reasons for the differences are the focus of this group. The talk brought strongly to mind the work of Jared Diamond and Ronald Wright (the latter's book, A Short History of Progress, I cannot recommend highly enough), as well as more quantitative work by Dalhousie's own Hal Whitehead, all of which carries with it the cautionary message that we must change much about our own society if we do not want it to fail spectacularly.

The final talk, by a professor that I had met but had not gotten to know well at UBC, was about microbial biodiversity. The emphasis here was on the sheer volume of unknown species in existence on Earth, a topic very close to my own heart. Furthermore, although we can characterise the processes that occur on our planet on a global scale, much of the details (such as which organisms do what, how effectively, and what happens when they are perturbed) are a complete mystery. Changes in the oceans' microbial life could have drastic impacts on the world's climate, which we cannot now predict because we have only an inkling of how diverse that life is. At the same time, I did not find the talk very well executed; the speaker was very good, but his understanding of some topics was a little light (he is a virologist, and the sorts of errors that he made about eukaryotes were things that only specialists would catch), and some of his more sweeping statements I thought more dramatic than necessary.

At the end of the three presentations, the audience was asked to vote for what they thought was the "Next Big Question". Given my field of inquiry, I was not at all surprised to be in the midst of a show of hands for the microbe talk; I was surprised, however, at how obvious was the majority of hands from the rest of the auditorium for the same topic. The speaker evidently had impressed his audience, and I did feel some pride in a topic so close to my own being appreciated. I felt a bit of a traitor for it, but I did not vote for that myself. Make no mistake: I am in the right field for me. What I study is more interesting to me than anything else in the world, and I enjoy my labwork immensely. However, my vote went to the societal research, because whatever I might discover or establish will not count for anything if there is not a society around to appreciate it in the future. We as a culture are rapidly approaching the point at which we must change drastically or collapse, and how we must change is a compelling question. What probably clinched the matter for me was that the UN has come to this research group, to ask for recommendations to give to some of those less-successful nations that ask why their neighbours do so much better than they. If there is any chance of this group having any influence, it will be inestimably more important than my own field of study.

That having been said, the vote was all in fun: no decisions were made on its basis, and the funding was guaranteed for each group long before these events were even planned. My personal suspicion was that it was a ploy to keep the audience's attention, although I would prefer to think something less cynical. In any event, it was a good experience, and a nice exposure to a generally good idea -- that of making science more accessible, and more compelling, to the general public.