meeting highlights virtues of 'small science'
Bill Schweber EE
BOSTON — Looking at the history of advanced
technology in general, and the electronics niche in particular,
one thing is clear: We're very dependent on materials science.
Whether it's ultrapure substances, new materials,
nanoparticles, coatings, implantation, packaging or solid-state
physics, not to mention testing and maintaining the most subtle
electrical, mechanical, chemical and physical attributes (try
measuring these parameters on nanoparticles!), materials science
is one of the foundation blocks of the electronics industry.
That's one of the messages
that came through at this week's annual meeting of the Materials
Research Society, here.
Among the 5,000 attendees were leading academics, students,
corporate researchers and applications specialists from around
the world. Looking at the program and walking the show floor, I
was struck by the extraordinary diversity and multiplicity of
To me, this is R&D and science at its best, with
many sub-niches within a diversity of niches, probing new paths
and opportunities, supporting the efforts of others with
materials, products and equipment (the smaller the particle, the
larger the instrumentation) and unanticipated synergies.
Progress in one area often combines with or enables progress in
other areas, usually in unforeseen ways. As we say, "stuff
happens." In this case, the "stuff" may be that desirable
combination of infrastructure support, unexpected advances,
fortuitous combinations and even some serendipity.
Contrast this to big science, which gets so much
attention through projects like CERN's Large Hadron Collider
(around $10 billion), or many of NASA's mega-projects. (whatever
your views on the virtues of sub-atomic research, it does take
very serious money to do it.)
It is those other big science projects that worry
me, since they develop a scientific and bureaucratic stagnation,
and are often predicated on the myth of predictable, organized
progress in research, development and application, which history
shows is rarely the case.
A recent New York Times
Black Hole Budgets," by
former top NASA administrator Alan Stern made the point vividly.
Stern provided as examples the James Webb Space Telescope, which
is $4 billion over its $1 billion budget, and the Mars Science
Rover, which has already consumed $1.8 billion.
By contrast, the extremely successful Phoenix
Mars Lander has a much small budget managed by tightly focused
teams with support from experienced teams at JPL and elsewhere.
Sure, large projects are
sometimes a necessity, like the Apollo
lunar lander or
development of atomic bomb. But it's the smaller, nimbler, more
synergistic efforts and varied infrastructure, such as what I
saw at the annual materials event, which will lead us to
technical advances in ways we don't expect.
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