02 February 2012

Link of the day: "To know, but not understand"

I liked the essay "To know, but not understand" by David Weinberger in The Atlantic. Weinberger discusses one of the major shifts in science today -- the data deluge. Here's the issue in a nutshell:
In 1963, Bernard K. Forscher of the Mayo Clinic complained in a now famous letter printed in the prestigious journal Science that scientists were generating too many facts. Titled Chaos in the Brickyard, the letter warned that the new generation of scientists was too busy churning out bricks -- facts -- without regard to how they go together. Brickmaking, Forscher feared, had become an end in itself. "And so it happened that the land became flooded with bricks. ... It became difficult to find the proper bricks for a task because one had to hunt among so many. ... It became difficult to complete a useful edifice because, as soon as the foundations were discernible, they were buried under an avalanche of random bricks."
And that letter is from 1963! Weinberger points out that thanks to computer power (Moore's Law) and cheap digital storage, we have even more data than we know what to do with. But as much as it seems like computers are the problem, they might also be the solution. He talks about modelling science, which uses computers to perform simulations and software like Eureqa which looks for patterns in data and generates equations to encapsulate those patterns. Of course, this isn't as satisfying as Maxwell's equations and the like, but it looks like this is something we'll have to live with. As Weinberger states,
The world's complexity may simply outrun our brains capacity to understand it.

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