New Ways of Doing Science

Science is an ever changing field. Every clear night possible I go out and look at the stars with my telescope, a device that revolutionized our understanding of the Universe about 400 years ago. I also write on a MacBook Pro, and I can’t even count all the ways computers have changed science.

I have also been able to write about some pretty cool new pieces of equipment or experiments that are shaking up our understanding of how to do science.

Take for instance my recent article on small satellites (about the size of a refrigerator to a softball) for National Geographic News. Small satellites are cheaper and quicker to build, but do science that is every bit as good as the bigger space satellites like the Hubble Space Telescope.

In the past they were thought of as good tools to teach aerospace engineering or get students interested in space, but now there are some really cool space missions using small missions. My favorite is the ill-fated NanoSail-D, which failed to get into space a couple weeks ago because of a rocket failure. The approximately $2 million satellite was supposed to test a new solar sail, and it still might. They built two flight-ready satellites, and the backup could be soaring high within a year.

Try and get NASA to approve making a duplicate of a $1 billion space satellite!

Another article that was recently published by the Foundational Questions Institute focuses on trying to see if quantum mechanics works on ever larger scales. We’re not talking cat-sized objects, but we are talking big enough that with a little help from microscopes you could see them with your own eyes.

Previous attempts to see quantum effects have never worked on a scale this big. I mean they are nearly 10 billion times more massive than anything before. That’s a lot bigger.

And, if they can establish where quantum mechanics breaks down and classical mechanics starts that could open up a whole new suite of technologies that make use of the quantum world’s wacky physics.

Finally, I am looking forward to a conference at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics that will focus on Science in the 21st Century. A lot of the talks seem to be focusing on how the internet, blogs, and even open access to research data are changing the face of science.

I think one of the most interesting talks will be by Katy Borner, a researcher at Indiana University, who will be talking about mapping science. I’ve heard the term “scientific roadmap” or “roadmap for the future” a million times in policy announcements before, but all you have to do is look at some of the incredible images tracking scientific discoveries, funding, and public interest to see that she is talking about something very different and very cool.


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