Brain power still the genesis of scientific breakthroughs

Despite the advent of super-computers and space missions, it's the human mind that still create the theories at the heart of science

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 February, 2014, 2:56am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 February, 2014, 2:56am

Will we ever again see a Newton, a Darwin or an Einstein - scientists who decoded the laws of nature using nothing more than brainpower and a few simple tools? Or can the human mind no longer make fundamental breakthroughs in science without the aid of supercomputers, space missions and enormous expenditure?

Through much of human history, from the Babylonians 4,000 years ago to Einstein in the early 20th century, scientific discoveries have been made with patient observation, manual calculation, rudimentary instruments, critical thinking and intelligent analysis. The human mind was the most powerful instrument.

By just thinking about it long and hard, the Greeks conceived the philosophy of science between 350BC and AD400. Aristotle and his students established logic and reasoning as requisites of the scientific method and rational thought. These principles, along with Euclid's treatise on geometry and mathematical proof around 300BC, and Diophantus' on arithmetic and algebra around AD200, laid the foundations for scientific investigation.

The power of the human mind is even more stunning in astronomy. Astronomers in antiquity could only observe with the naked eye the glimmer of lights hundreds of thousands of kilometres away in the night sky. Yet by the second millennium BC, Babylonians in Mesopotamia had identified the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn by meticulously tracking their periodic movement across the sky. During the same period, Chinese stargazers correctly determined that Jupiter takes 12 years to complete one rotation around the sun. It would be another 3,700 years before William Herschel, a British astronomer, discovered the next planet in the solar system, Uranus, in 1781 using a telescope.

The invention of the telescope, though it was primitive by today's standards, enabled astronomers in the 16th and 17th centuries - Copernicus, Brahe, Keppler, Galileo - to map earth's movement around the sun, as well as other planetary orbits.

It took the genius of Isaac Newton (1643-1727) to combine the discoveries of earlier scientists with his own insights to reveal the workings of the solar system. With pen-and-paper calculations, he explained how objects move when a force acts on them, how gravity was the force of attraction between two objects and how the force of gravity is affected by distance and mass. Newton's laws of motion laid the foundation of modern physics.

Newton's law also enabled the British astronomer John Adams to predict the existence of a planet along with its mass, position and orbit in the 1840s before anyone had observed it. Adams posited that the observed deviation of Uranus from its known orbit was caused by the gravitational pull of another planet passing by. The existence of the planet, later named Neptune, was confirmed by observation made by Johann Gottfried Galle at the Berlin Observatory in 1846.

In the natural sciences, Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution by travelling, observing, collecting specimens, studying them closely and recording how the same species evolved differently in different habitats over time. In physics, Albert Einstein came up with the theory of general relativity essentially by playing a mind game, imagining what would happen if a person was travelling at the speed of light.

In our time, the remaining mysteries of the cosmos are being explored with powerful and costly technology - the Voyager, Magellan and Galileo spacecraft, Mars exploration rovers and the Spacelab. Near Geneva, the 27-kilometre Large Hadron Collider tests theories about the behaviour of subatomic and cosmic particles in the search for the Higgs boson, a particle that could lead to a better understanding of how the universe began.

Of course, it still takes brain power to come up with the theories. The Higgs boson started out as an idea in the head of a British physicist, Peter Higgs, who proposed a mechanism and a particle to explain why the most basic building blocks of the universe have mass. Likewise, the expansion of the universe was theorised by the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann in 1922, and proved in 1929 by the astronomer Edwin Hubble.

To reward success in scientific research, there's now a new set of prizes for "transformative achievements" in fundamental physics, life sciences and mathematics. Funded by Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner, Sergey Brin of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Ma of Alibaba, these annual Breakthrough Prizes are the richest in science - each winner or winning team gets US$3 million, more than double the amount for the Nobel prizes. The winners of the 2014 award for fundamental physics were Michael Green of Cambridge University and John Schwartz of the California Institute of Technology for "opening new perspectives on quantum gravity and the unification of forces".

It's encouraging that brainpower-based breakthroughs in science are still celebrated in the age of technology. At least humans are intelligent enough to recognise that it's human intelligence that drives the endless search for scientific truth, not the internet, big data or iPhones!

Tom Yam is a Hong Kong-based management consultant with an electrical engineering doctorate and MBA from the University of Pennsylvania. He has worked at AT&T, Ernst & Young and IBM