Friday, January 22, 2010


This is the seventh in a series of new posts on the subject of complexity in scientific research. The theme of this collection is that scientific progress, particularly in the realm of healthcare, has declined as a consequence of the high complexity in software and other technologies.


The National Reconnaissance Office is the U.S. agency that handles spy satellites. In 1998, the agency offered a contract to build a new generation of satellites. The contract went to Boeing, which had never built the kind of satellite specified in the contract. According to an investigative article written for the New York Times, the Boeing engineers designed subsystems of such complexity that they could not be built (1). Because the workforce were inexperienced in assembling a satellite, they used construction materials that were inappropriate for spacecraft. Most noteworthy was their planned use of tin parts, which deform in space, sometimes leading to short circuits. Seven years later, the project was killed, after running up costs estimated as high as $18 billion dollars. Experts reviewing the failed project indicated that it was doomed from the start. Basically, the level of complexity of the project exceeded Boeing's ability to fulfill the contract, and exceeded the government's ability to initiate and supervise the contract (1).

There are projects that tantalize, hovering just outside human reach: sending men to mars, commercializing supersonic transport jets, long-term stock market predictions, introduction of species to a foreign ecological environment, tamper-proof computerized voting machines, planned tactical warfare, etc. It is not as though the world does not contain complex, and functional, objects. Jet planes, supercomputers, skyscrapers, telecommunication satellites, butterflies, and humans are just a few examples. These highly complex objects all arose from less complex objects. Butterflies and humans slowly evolved, over billions of years, from an early life form. Jets and other complex machines were built by teams of humans, working from a collective experience, adding improvements incrementally, over decades

[1] Taubman P. Failure to Launch: In death of spy satellite program, lofty plans and unrealistic bids. The New York Times. November 11, 2007.


© 2010 Jules Berman

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Science is not a collection of facts. Science is what facts teach us; what we can learn about our universe, and ourselves, by deductive thinking. From observations of the night sky, made without the aid of telescopes, we can deduce that the universe is expanding, that the universe is not infinitely old, and why black holes exist. Without resorting to experimentation or mathematical analysis, we can deduce that gravity is a curvature in space-time, that the particles that compose light have no mass, that there is a theoretical limit to the number of different elements in the universe, and that the earth is billions of years old. Likewise, simple observations on animals tell us much about the migration of continents, the evolutionary relationships among classes of animals, why the nuclei of cells contain our genetic material, why certain animals are long-lived, why the gestation period of humans is 9 months, and why some diseases are rare and other diseases are common. In “Armchair Science”, the reader is confronted with 129 scientific mysteries, in cosmology, particle physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine. Beginning with simple observations, step-by-step analyses guide the reader toward solutions that are sometimes startling, and always entertaining. “Armchair Science” is written for general readers who are curious about science, and who want to sharpen their deductive skills.