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Fresh Ideas from New Generations Fuel Science’s Future

1 February 2013

Tom Siegfried is a science freelance writer and former editor-in-chief of Science News magazine.

"A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

— Max Planck, physicist, 1858–1947

Making big discoveries in science is like climbing Mount Everest. The higher you go, the tougher the challenge — and the more you rely on your climbing partner.

A century ago, Ernest Rutherford discovered the atomic nucleus with data collected by two assistants using an apparatus that fit on a table top. In recent years, a team of several thousand scientists from more than three dozen countries at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a particle accelerator, used house-sized detectors weighing thousands of tons to locate a new subatomic particle believed to be the Higgs boson. If confirmed, this would be a step forward in realizing Albert Einstein's dream of unifying all physical laws in a single equation.

It's no surprise that big scientific discoveries are harder to make now. The German physicist Max Planck noted that a "new truth" is always found only with great difficulty: "If it were not so, it would have been discovered much sooner." And Planck made that observation almost nine decades ago. So revealing nature's remaining secrets won't be easy. And there are still many riddles to be unraveled.

COOPERATION, TOOLS TO TACKLE CHALLENGES

For all the achievements of modern science, countless enigmas continue to perplex experts in almost every research field. Astronomers and physicists, for instance, are challenged to understand "dark matter," an exotic type of matter unknown on Earth, and "dark energy," which drives the universe to expand at a faster and faster rate. Earth scientists are trying to discover ways to predict when big earthquakes will strike. Scientists studying the brain are trying to figure out the secrets of consciousness and how it arises from the chemical and electrical signals among billions of brain cells. And biologists investigating DNA seek to understand the relationship of genes to various diseases. Exploring these mysteries requires bigger teams, ever more sophisticated (and costly) technologies, greater international cooperation — and, most important, a new generation of scientists with fresh ideas.

Advances in technology allow researchers to leverage their efforts and make progress on scientific problems. Better brain scanners allow us to map the brain's inner workings more precisely. New particle accelerators, successors to the LHC, will be needed to probe the properties of matter more deeply. Scientists may use nanoparticles to build tiny machinery to treat diseases in the brain and other parts of the body. Researchers in the new field of synthetic biology are figuring out how to build new versions of biological molecules.

NEW THINKING TO "OPEN SCIENCE"

While new devices may give rise to some solutions, new ways of thinking continue to be key to scientific advances. New fields of mathematics are a case in point. Recently developed insight into the math governing networks, for instance, aids the analysis of complex combinations of cells, or genes, or even people interacting via social media. Such novel mathematical methods may result in a better understanding of epidemics, the brain, the weather, or even social movements.

But all the potential progress will not happen by magic. Educational systems around the world need to be retooled to emphasize 21st-century questions and methods. Science should not be taught in compartments, a single discipline at a time, but must be learned in a way that breaks down disciplinary barriers that impede progress.

Other barriers must fall, too. Science has always valued international cooperation, but now more than ever the world needs to muster all its human resources, from all nations and cultures, to tackle the great scientific mysteries of the day.

For one thing, international cooperation makes it possible to fund large scientific projects too costly for any one nation. Cooperation also aids scientists in finding researchers with similar interests or valuable data that might not otherwise be available. And the scientific process itself is enhanced: "Scientists ... report that working with foreign-trained researchers gives them new insights into how to think about science," a 2002 RAND report stated. "Science is about creativity; these linkages enhance creative thinking."

So some of the tools needed to make progress will not be new versions of microscopes or telescopes or atom smashers, but new systems for enhancing communication and cooperation.

Already the "open science" movement has begun to catalyze the sharing of scientific information outside of the usual method of publishing only in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Publication in "open access" journals, where papers are freely available, is on the rise. In 2011 an estimated 340,000 articles were published in more than 6,000 open access journals. And online efforts such as ResearchGate are now allowing scientists to share their findings and data freely.

Online tools for communicating and collaborating "are transforming the way scientists make discoveries," physicist Michael Nielsen notes in his 2011 book Reinventing Discovery. "These tools are ... actively amplifying our collective intelligence, making us smarter and so better able to solve the toughest scientific problems."

As Max Planck noted, science is "a progressive development," not a "repose amidst knowledge already gained." Science is not a static body of facts collected in books. It's a voyage of exploration of worlds still unknown. In order to advance, it must welcome new explorers. With its transparency and spirit of sharing information with all who are interested, the open science movement offers an inviting environment for all of those new explorers, facilitating the ascent to new scientific heights.

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Atomic nucleus: The central core of an atom composed of protons and neutrons.

Subatomic particle: Any unit of matter below the size of an atom, including a part of an atom.

Higgs boson: A hypothetical elementary particle that has zero spin and large mass and that is required by some theories to account for the masses of other elementary particles.

Dark matter: Non-luminous matter that cannot be directly observed, but whose existence is suggested because of the gravitational pull it exerts on the rotation rate of galaxies and the presence of clusters of galaxies.

Dark energy: A hypothetical form of energy that produces a force that opposes gravity and is thought to be the cause of the accelerating expansion of the universe.

Cell: An autonomous self-replicating unit that is specialized into carrying out particular functions in the organism.

DNA: Deoxyribonucleic acid, a nucleic acid located in the cell nucleus that carries hereditary genetic information for cell growth, division and function.

Gene: The fundamental, physical and functional unit of heredity made of DNA and containing instructions for making protein molecules.

Nanoparticle: A microscopic particle whose size is measured in nanometers (nm), typically less than 100nm.

Molecule: A group of atoms bonded together.

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