Saturday, April 10, 2010

Answers without Questions

I was listening to RadioLab at work on Thursday (the day I discovered it) and I keep thinking about the episode I listened to. It was all about the limits we face--physically, mentally, and how much we can comprehend. I think the comprehension limit was the most fascinating. What this means is that there is a limit to what we can wrap out minds around. For instance, we can comprehend the number 10 and maybe even 100, but thousands and billions and trillions are so huge that it doesn't even mean anything to us anymore. We can even fathom the physical difference between 2 trillion and 4 trillion. They are both just huge, huge, huge numbers.

Anyway, they told a story about scientists coming across the answer without really understanding the question. The scientists built a robot that can detect patterns and tease out equations from the patterns it sees. For instance, after staring at the random movements of a double pendulum, the robot spit out the equation F=ma, which is Isaac Newton's 2nd Law of Motion. This was pretty amazing and scientists were excited because they understood that law and already had proof for it. Then they decided to try the robot out on things they didn't understand yet. They decided to see if the robot could study the inter-workings of a cell, a living cell, and see if it could derive some sort of law that explained how, for instance, if one enzyme did this some other protein did that which made this molecule move up or sideways depending on the concentration of something else, and so on and so on. Very, very complicated stuff that scientists have been trying to explain for years. Anyway, the amazing thing it that the robot did, in fact, come up with a huge, nasty equation to explain it all. And when the scientists tested it out, it worked. It could even predict what the cell would do in the future. The only problem was that the scientists had no idea what it all meant. It was as if they looked at the answer in the back of the textbook and copied that down without actually going through the problem and learning how to get to the problem. You can listen to just this 10 minute segment here if you want. It's pretty interesting.

At least we know what one of the next discoveries in science will be: the explanation of what the robot showed us. It made take a few scientific studies to get to that point, though.

1 comment:

Greg said...

This was the subject of our dinner conversation today! David thinks a lot the same way as you! This is Mom.