Jiva Technology

Are we in a new Golden Age of science?

Its often the case that of the three major scientific disciplines taught in schools and university, one or other of physics, chemistry or biology comes out on top. For a long period, it seemed that physics was top dog, with its endless discoveries at a quantum scale, the continuing affirmation of Einsteins theories of relativity and the benefit of NASA space programmes. Back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, it would have been chemistry that was top dog, with new elements being discovered, radioactivity and crystallography giving up its secrets. And in the late 90’s and early 200’s, biology was revolutionised with genome sequencing opening up a myriad of new research options.

But if you look across the scientific landscape at the moment, has there ever been a moment when science was either more needed and, at the same time, more productive. In all the major scientific disciplines, ground breaking new work is not only pushing back the boundaries of our knowledge, but also being applied to practical problems at an ever more rapid pace. Has there ever been a better time to study science?

As we shift to a post-carbon economy, the work of chemists in battery technology and materials science will have a profound impact on the speed of transition. Environmental scientists work on ever more complex models of our planet in an attempt to halt the worst effects of global warming. Biologists have given us gene editing tools, immunotherapies and gene therapies. Physicists inch ever closer to uniting our understanding the quantum world with gravity and spacetime; LIGO has for the first time actually recorded the presence of gravitational waves. Neuroscience moves ahead in leaps and bounds, quantum computing bounds forward, robotics and artificial intelligence have moved out of the laboratory, China has joined the scientific community with resources and scientists that can only help the global search for knowledge. And so on.

A friend of mine who engages in post-doctoral research in neuroscience said to me recently, “there are a lot of smart people in the world to compete with” when we were talking about progress in science. I came away thinking that was a good thing. With global funding for science on the increase and smart people drawn to all the scientific disciplines, this golden age of science is a source of inspiration; long may it last.

testing, testing …

Its not an original observation, but it does appear that the relentless focus on tests and testing from an early age within the British education might just be turning large swathes of young people off the idea of education at just the time in history when they need it more than ever. The idea of testing makes sense; in management consulting parlance, if you can’t measure something, you can’t manage it. And with the nation pouring large amounts of cash into the education, its natural to want to know that we’re getting value for money. What’s the alternative? Put up the cash and hope for the best? But school now seems to be an endless succession of hurdles that kids are asked to jump over and where’s the fun in that? Is anyone seriously asking the users of the system how that feels? Because (albeit with a microscpoic sample size), the answers I hear ain’t pretty.

It simply isn’t true that every year of your school life is as important as the others. Surely there’s room to have some years without testing? Years when students can explore topics for fun or push the boundaries a little. The UK is unusual in holding formal exams at 16 and 18, so how about a little give and take? it wouldn’t be difficult to map out muti-year plans that say, ‘you can ease off a bot here because its going to get tough in these years’. Apart from anything else, one of the most valuable skills that students will learn is not passing exams, but in successfully organising and executing indepent inquiry.

If anyone out there has seen any studies or feedback or research on how the ‘users’ of the education system view  relentless testing, we’d be glad to hear about it.

 

Living the subscription lifestyle

There was time not so long ago when I either bought things outright or had finance to buy things outright. But recently, I’ve noticed an increasing number of the things I buy are offered as a subscription. There are some financial reasons (that we don’t need to go into here) why companies want subscribers, but its interesting that the things that used to be offered on subscriptions were old fashioned, like magazines, whereas now it seems that the most cutting edge services like Netflix or Amazon Prime are the ones to offer subscriptions. I’ve been looking to buy a new car and even that is offered on subscription. I won’t own it, I’ll just use it for three years and hand it back or buy a new one. All in return for a monthly payment. Some of the car manufacturers even let me switch cars within the there years. Will everything we buy be on a subscription basis in the future? Is this an inexorable trend?

I ask the question because it occurs to me that if I want to subscribe to television services, then I might also want to subscribe to education services. Perhaps I’ll want the ability to pay a monthly fee, or the government might pay a monthly fee to get an education from different providers. “Ridiculous”, I hear you say, but why not? And what’s stopping it? I could pay monthly for my house (rental), my car (PCP), my TV, so why not an education for our children. Or perhaps I want to have a core of education services two days per week from a single institution and then subscribe to other services for the balance of my time. Some people are already doing this – children go to school and then have ballet, football or additional tutoring around the edge. The barrier to this type of flexibility usually comes down to the fixed costs of delivery and the need to plan in advance, but teachers are fairly mobile, classrooms are pretty uniform and teachers can (within reason) move from institution to institution. Would it make education delivery more flexible? Would parents becomes stressed by the constant movement or would it free things up to deliver the maximum in flexible delivery of education?

It might be a bad idea, but sometimes by thinking the unthinkable, great new ideas float to the surface. You only have to think about how Canadians solved the problem of snow on their power lines to realise that a certain amount of expansive thinking goes a long way.

Patreon Science

As a self confessed fan of trying new ways to get an education (or in hipsterspeak, hack education) I’ve been following Patreon for a while now. For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, Patreon is the brainchild of a musician who was  popular on YouTube, but found that support for his music wasn’t turning into support financially. At least not for him. Cue a new way of doing things that allowed patrons to support projects they liked and for people to get paid for it.

So far, so simple. Patreon has been successful enough for people to copy it and spawn sub groups that cover science and education. The education sub group is so so, but the science section seems to be the natural abode for the weird and the wacky. The amounts of money involved are not huge and whilst the quality varies, some of them (Mr Carlson’s lab for instance) seem to tackle things that you just aren’t going to learn at school. Or college .. or anywhere for that matter.

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