• Question: Programs like horizon suggest that science is moving in a new direction, but where is science going in the future?

    Asked by calhopemaginn to Chris, Dave, David, Fiona, Jack on 25 Jun 2013.
    • Photo: Jack Miller

      Jack Miller answered on 25 Jun 2013:

      Hi Calhopemaginn,

      Science is going lots of different places at once. The more we discover about something, the more we discover we don’t know, and that process repeats. I personally think that we’re going to get a lot of out of areas of science coming together that traditionally were completely alien, disparate disciplines — such as, to use an example I know quite well, physics and biology. There are lots of others, such as computer science and biology/physics/chemistry, but I’m a biomedical physicist, so forgive me for talking about my own subject!

      Here’s why I think there’s a great amount to be gained from these interdisciplinary studies. Life’s hard. Biological systems span many orders of magnitude in space and time, and there’s no clear separation of scales. Plants can only photosynthesise because of the quantum mechanical tunnelling of photons on a really, really small scale, and the reason I eat plants because of the last five or so billion years of history. I’m a big person, nearly two meters tall — yet if certain proteins in my body had a deformation on the scale of 0.2 nm, I’d be very dead, very quickly. The physicist Paul Dirac said that life is a problem physics might work towards explaining as knowledge grows, and I think he’s right. The fact that life is so complicated, so multi-layered, so…interesting means that it’s very, very hard for traditional approaches to do anything useful with it. As computers become more powerful, I think we’ll be able to truly understand what goes on within us on an everyday basis, and that will open up huge opportunities for the development of medicine, and perhaps even the degree to which we integrate technology within ourselves.

      That’s my opinion at any rate — this will be one field that will change a lot over the next century or so. There will be many others, all equally exciting.

      Hope that helps!

      — Jack

    • Photo: Dave Farmer

      Dave Farmer answered on 25 Jun 2013:

      Hi calhopmaginn,

      Science is always moving in new directions, that’s kind of the point!

      One area of science that will start to have more and more impact across different disciplines is nanoscience. As our ability to manipulate smaller and smaller structures improves, then scientists in other areas will be able to use these ideas to further understanding of the very fundamental areas of their work.

      An example of this might be a polymer structure that can self-organise itself into a hollow sphere. At the moment we are still working to do this reliably with different types of polymers. Say we get the hang of it though, then these little hollow spheres might have application in medical science as very targeted drug delivery systems. There are many other examples similar to this, where our control of the very small will allow us to achieve big results elsewhere.


    • Photo: David Freeborn

      David Freeborn answered on 25 Jun 2013:

      Hi calhopemaginn,

      As Jack and Dave already said, Interdisciplinary science is definitely the future- and this is no bad thing. Scientists need to get more ideas from new areas.

      There’s a big influx of people with backgrounds in physics, maths and computer science into other fields, particularly biology, but elsewhere too, and I think it’s fair to say, they are completely changing the fields. Whole new areas of research have been opened up by improving computer power- and will continue to be. This has totally changed biology, meteorology (and economics!). It will continue to do so.

      Most scientists, looking ahead, think that humanity is on the threshold of epic strides in biology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. These are definitely areas of research to watch right now. There could be amazing advances in the next few decades.

      In physics, the era of huge projects on the scale of the LHC is probably over. The International Linear Collider might be the last of these to be built. The money for these areas dried up after the Cold War, as there is less international rivalry, and governments are less eager to push ahead in these areas. Research is now going to focus on many smaller, specialist projects, many of which might have much better potential to answer some questions. The same is also true (even more so) in astrophysics.

      But the great thing is, there’s also a lot of unpredictability. A new idea of technology could have the potential to open up whole new fields. We don’t know what we might discover.
      In 1900, Lord Kelvin said all that was left in physics was to put the 5th place on the decimal point, i.e. to measure things more accurately. Within 10 years, physics had been revolutionised by Quantum Mechanics and Relativity! How wrong he was!

    • Photo: Chris Mansell

      Chris Mansell answered on 25 Jun 2013:

      Hi calhopemaginn,

      One area of science that I think is really growing quickly is an area sometimes referred to as ‘big data.’ The presence of cell phones and electronic transactions, the increasing use of personal medicine (e.g. reading all the genes that a person has in order to help diagnose and treat him or her), and the concept of the electronically wired “smart city” are already providing us with enormous amounts of data. One challenge for scientists is going to be how to analyse all this data.

      One example is a person I know who doing a PhD funded by the British Heart Foundation. She is looking at the genes that play a role in heart disease. She has huge data sets and to look through them, she writes computer. When the code is written she runs it on a powerful cluster of computers and it takes days to finish (even though she has written the code to run as efficiently as possible).


    • Photo: Fiona Coomer

      Fiona Coomer answered on 25 Jun 2013:

      I think the answer is that we can guess where science might go in the future, but we don’t really know, and that’s one of the really exciting aspects of science. Often discoveries are made, and it’s decades before people realise how important those discoveries were.

      As the guys say, science is definitely becoming a lot more interdisciplinary, with the lines between physics, chemistry and biology blurring. Science in the UK is also becoming a lot more applied – in order to get funding for the science that you do now, you have to explain how it will impact society. This means that more research is done in areas where there will be the biggest impact (cancer treatment and green energy are two big areas at the moment) and much less ‘blue sky research’ – trying to gain an insight into how the universe / atoms / biological systems behave.