The throttles to scientific progress. - Aka: why this isn't the Jetsons' timeline

Penis Drager

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Let me start this thread with one of the greatest human success stories of all time:
The first powered flight happened in 1903. It was the culmination of a couple of brothers tinkering around in the shop and and deciding "I want to make something that will fly!" Truly, they were bright guys with great skill (and the tools to harness it all). Even better is knowing that we expanded on this technology at such a great pace that we put people on the moon by 1969, a mere 66 years later! People born early enough to see the first powered flight of mankind were alive late enough to see man's first steps on the moon. But progress in this field has largely hit a bottleneck from there. Maybe we found ways to maximize efficiency here and there. The space shuttle was a great way of efficiently bringing things back from space after a massive rocket brought them up there. There's promise of fully reusable rockets, but that basically hasn't changed since the 1990's. It honestly looks like we're done with flight until a whole new technology arises. It's all optimization at this point.

There's also computing, where we're desperately trying to make quantum computing halfway useful as the hard limit for conventional computing (the point where transistors will no longer be able to function normally due to quantum effects at their size) approaches. Quantum physics is hitting its own wall as demonstrated by the fact that people are freaking out over a discrepancy at 8 fucking decimal places. That's an interesting find, mind you, but compared to particle physics up to the 2000's? I can only hope it leads somewhere. But it likely won't be anything revolutionary and we'll be stuck with the same standard model that we've been using for over a decade. The one field I'm actually optimistic about is biotech as revolutions in mRNA research have allowed us to not only produce a vaccine in record time but the same tech could be used for basically every illness under the sun so long as we ensure that the jab itself is safe. We've already used gene editing to fix some degenerative diseases and I fully expect more of the same from this field in the next few decades.

My thesis is that every field is going to hit a wall where there's basically nothing new to learn until the next revolution happens. Expanding scientific knowledge is mostly a slow, grinding process and the vast majority of scientists never make a name for themselves unless they sell their asshole to media whores (at which point, they cease to be scientists). Only by sheer luck and ingenuity can we break through these walls we have before us. Science is typically a slow, incremental process. But it's only when we find a particularly interesting thread to tug at that interesting shit happens.
 

DumbDude42

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regarding flight and space travel: it "hit a wall" after the moon landing because
a) there really isn't very much to do on the moon that would be useful to anybody, so going there doesnt really have a point beyond bragging rights
b) anything beyond the moon is insanely far away
c) even if you get past the "too far away" problem, there's not a lot of useful things to do on fucking mars or venus either
tl;dr space travel is a huge money sink with no real return, which is why there's no real push or investment for it beyond a few eccentric billionaires living out their childhood dreams (elon musk)
 

Secret Asshole

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I mean, quantum computing needs liquid helium which is insanely expensive and if you bump into the desk while its calculating, that little amount of heat generated by the movement can severely fuck up its calculations.

If you're asking why, its several reasons.

1) We're up against a wall with batteries. We're basically grinding against the limits of chemical batteries and we're having trouble getting around it.
2) We're up against a wall with silicon processors. Its getting harder and harder to refine.
3) We're up against a wall with energy sources. We haven't found an efficient process that is sufficiently able to be shrunk down.

So we're bumping up against walls (the laws of physics suck). DNA was basically a biological revolution that's been only really applicable in the last 20 or 30 years. Go back to the 1990s and watch movies and docs and they're still doing blood-type analysis and primitive forensic techniques. DNA was a revolution that we're just now exploiting to its fullest potential. I mean, its pretty amazing. CRISPR and gene editing are still another 20 years off.

Biomedical research is insanely expensive and more focused on applicability than just generally looking into something, because that's very expensive. mRNA research has been really really dominant, so its not a surprise they're being used in vaccines. Especially against viruses.

There is also the problem of constantly finding positive results. If a scientists finds no result or the opposite result, they're considered a failure when that's simply not true. So you have a lot of experiments where no result or negative results are just tossed in a drawer. So you get repeated attempts at shit that failed but nobody knows about it because it was never published or reported. Seeing what failed can give others a road to success, even if you don't see it yourself. But the problem with modern science is that its not science who is paying you, its universities or governments who want publications and constant positive results.
 

Hellbound Hellhound

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Technological progress tends to follow a sigmoid curve: there is often a great deal of innovation when an area of development is new and pioneering, but once the low-hanging fruit has been attained, it gets more and more difficult to push things further, and the progress tends to level off.

This has happened with aerospace, as you have mentioned, and I'd argue it's also happening with computers and mobile phones as well. I suspect the next major technological frontiers will be extended in the areas of AI, biotech, and nanotech, since those fields still seem to be in their infancy, although predictions about these things tend to be unreliable, since it's usually very difficult to know where on the sigmoid curve a particular field of research is before it's already starting to level off.

I don't think politics and economics is as much of a barrier to progress as people often think it is; at least not in the developed world. History shows us that where there is a clear advantage to a particular area of research and development, society will generally work to facilitate that demand. The difficulties are usually more practical.
 

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Technological progress tends to follow a sigmoid curve: there is often a great deal of innovation when an area of development is new and pioneering, but once the low-hanging fruit has been attained, it gets more and more difficult to push things further, and the progress tends to level off.
This really explains it all. It's ridiculous to think that we've basically invented everything, but in a way we really have. There's almost nothing of practical use left to discover.

Yes, we're constantly refining existing processes and everything is getting cheaper and better by the day, but continually molding the same clay into increasingly detailed shapes isn't innovation nor is it discovery. That's the stage we're at right now.

That's not to say there won't be some enormous breakthrough in the future. Medicine, particularly anything involving the brain, still has a very long way to go. There are a lot of very exciting/scary things coming our way there.

But if you're hoping for a discovery on par with electricity or flight, there's almost zero chance. The only things left would be faster than light travel or time manipulation, both of which are most likely impossible, and if they're not would require so much energy as to be functionally impossible.
 

polyqueerandrosensual

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There was a song about this in 1992- how technology failed to advance much after the moon landing. It hit #1 in the UK.

 

PaleTay

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The real wall is human intelligence. We're already well past a point where technology can be used effectively in everyday life, so many industries don't see it as a priority to innovate as it isn't profitable.
 

DeadFish

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The real wall is human intelligence. We're already well past a point where technology can be used effectively in everyday life, so many industries don't see it as a priority to innovate as it isn't profitable.
This.
To progress further humans will need to enhance their intelligence by altering themselves genetically. This opens up a Pandora's box of issues.
 

Positron

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My thesis is that every field is going to hit a wall where there's basically nothing new to learn until the next revolution happens.... Only by sheer luck and ingenuity can we break through these walls we have before us. Science is typically a slow, incremental process. But it's only when we find a particularly interesting thread to tug at that interesting shit happens.
If you believe in Kuhn's account, science is driven by anomalities -- experimental results that are at odds with established theory. A few anomalities may be brushed under rug, or patched over with ad-hoc hypotheses, but eventually anomalities accumulate, and scientists will have no option but to devise a new theory to replace the old. This ushers in what Kuhn calls "paradigm shift"

In Physics, the biggest anomality we face is the incompatibility between Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity. This will keep people busy for the next 50 years. The big problem with Physics is that the energy required to probe a deeper layer of reality is very high, so despite the ingenuities of theorists, no new theory has been confirmed and widely accepted.

In Biology, anomalities abound and new understandings, some of which will overturn our present understandings, will keep coming for the forseeable future.

Technological progress tends to follow a sigmoid curve: there is often a great deal of innovation when an area of development is new and pioneering, but once the low-hanging fruit has been attained, it gets more and more difficult to push things further, and the progress tends to level off.
This phase is what Kuhn calls "normal science", when scientists and technologists follow the current paradigm to make new discoveries. Normal science can only end in two ways: either with a paradigm shift, or when everything in this field is truly exhausted and the field ceased to be an area worthy of research -- it then becomes "engineering". Kuhn's example for this is Geometrical Optics. Still, a field that is demoted to "engineering" doesn't mean it cannot make technological advances: consider the tiny cameras of your cell phone.
 
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Let me start this thread with one of the greatest human success stories of all time:
The first powered flight happened in 1903. It was the culmination of a couple of brothers tinkering around in the shop and and deciding "I want to make something that will fly!" Truly, they were bright guys with great skill (and the tools to harness it all). Even better is knowing that we expanded on this technology at such a great pace that we put people on the moon by 1969, a mere 66 years later! People born early enough to see the first powered flight of mankind were alive late enough to see man's first steps on the moon. But progress in this field has largely hit a bottleneck from there. Maybe we found ways to maximize efficiency here and there. The space shuttle was a great way of efficiently bringing things back from space after a massive rocket brought them up there. There's promise of fully reusable rockets, but that basically hasn't changed since the 1990's. It honestly looks like we're done with flight until a whole new technology arises. It's all optimization at this point.
The big problem with spaceflight is the ability to test new designs. I can go on and on about how much of a shitty boondoggle the Space Shuttle was (we had to effectively disassemble and reassemble it after each flight and it is still the most lethal space vehicle in history) but it was the first of its kind. We made incredible advances in materials engineering, avionics, and mission planning with it, but it was still expensive while not achieving a tenth of what was promised, so we were pretty discouraged and went with the tired and boring that we know works. The history of atmospheric flight is filled with experimental designs that ranged from retarded to revolutionary, and the same is true for spaceflight, but the difference with space is that those retarded plane designs were actually flown. How many people died in test flights between the Wright Flyer and the SR-71 Blackbird (the current fastest jet)? An innumerable amount, and that was because the immediate military, political, and economic benefit outweighed the costs. That's why some nobody air mail pilot decided to fly solo across the Atlantic. Nobody really wants to take the risk, both in wasting money on something that goes nowhere and having people die (and it's not just the test pilots who die). We don't have a good reason to take gigantic risks like that.

Another thing is that now all these fields are integrated with each other. Materials science, physics, manufacturing techniques, telecommunications: if any of these slow down in development then the development of spaceflight and quantum computing is similarly slowed.

It's also not like we don't have interesting spaceflight vehicles in development. The DOD even has one that nobody has any idea what the fuck it does. It will take time like all other technological developments.


I think it's too soon to think about hitting a wall in terms of scientific development. We just had the biggest revolution in the way we interact and do things thanks to the development of computer science and physics over half a decade: the Internet. We developed the idea of an interconnected computer network in the 1950s. ARPANET came about in 1969. The World Wide Web was made in 1989. Normies were let onto the internet by the mid 90s. Although shit does take time it's not really a good perspective to think about it as "hitting a wall." Every great leap is made from a well constructed foundation, and we are plodding along just fine making that foundation.
 

Haim Arlosoroff

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The DOD even has one that nobody has any idea what the fuck it does.
Well, it either:
  1. transports something so specificly fragile and expensive to maintain that funding a glide return of the container itself during each use is cost effective.
  2. Has a unique data relay system that is cheaper to return home than to build another
  3. It tests expensive orbital engines.
  4. The act of deorbiting with a drone itself is novel enough a situation that a drone-happy military wants one
#1 could definitely happen but its useless to speculate until what it could be made to carry becomes known. #2 is very far out unless the vacuum of space is being used to run a quantum computer, but we do that here today so its unlikely. #3 would be fun if its not just a new Hall Thruster or far more likely Nuclear Propulsion since they're being sneaky about nuclear power in space. #4 is also possible given the other three as the deorbiting flight from enough height and speed would be novel enough to test hypersonic missile technology. Get it in orbit, use a tiny hall thruster to accelerate it at the periapsis of a thousand orbits until its apoapsis gets really far and then retroburn at the apoapsis, then sail the hypersonic reentry and record everything. One, Two, Three, and Four technically if you orbit a few satellites while you're up there.