Saturday, January 16, 2010


I'm beginning a series of new blogs written on the subject of complexity in scientific research. The point of this collection of essays is to show that scientific progress has declined as a consequence of the high complexity in software and other technologies.


When you watch a movie circa 1960, and you look at their streets and houses, and furniture, and clothing, is there any difference between then and now? Not much. Basically, the scientific advance that shapes the world today was discovered prior to 1960. The only visible difference between people then and people now is personal appearance. The twenty-first century citizen has abandoned keeping neat and trim, preferring an alluring fat slob look.

What did we have in 1960? We had home television (1947), transistors (1948), commercial jets (1949), computers (Univac, 1951), nuclear bombs (fission , fusion in 1952), solar cells (1954), fission reactors (1954), satellites orbiting the earth (Sputnik I, 1957), integrated circuits (1958), photocopying (1958), probes on the moon (Lunik II, 1959), practical business computers (1959), lasers (1960).

These engineering and scientific advancements pale in comparison to the advances in medicine that occurred by 1960. Prior to 1950, we had the basic principles of metabolism, including the chemistry and functions of vitamins; the activity of the hormone system (including the use of insulin to treat diabetes and dietary methods to prevent goiter), the methodology to develop antibiotics and to use them effectively to treat syphilis, gonorrhea, and the most common bacterial diseases. Sterile surgical technique was practiced, bringing a precipitous drop in maternal post-partum deaths. We could provide safe blood transfusions, using A,B,O compatibility testing (1900). X-ray imaging had improve medical diagnosis.

Disease prevention was a practical field of medical science, bringing methods to prevent a wide range of common diseases using a clean water supply and improved waste management; and safe methods to preserve food including canning, refrigeration and freezing. In 1941, Papanicolaou introduced the smear technique to screen for precancerous cervical lesions, resulting in a 70% drop in the death rate from uterine cervical cancer in populations that implemented screening. In 1947, we had strong epidemiologic evidence that cigarettes caused lung cancer.

When we entered 1950, Linus Pauling had essentially invented the field of molecular genetics by demonstrating a single amino acid mutation accounting for the the defective gene responsible for sickle cell anemia. In 1950 Chargoff discovered base complementarity in DNA. Also, in 1950, Arthur Vineburg routed an internal mammary artery, in place, to vascularize the heart. In 1951, fluoridation was introduced, greatly reducing dental disease. Then came isoniazid, the drug that virtually erased tuberculosis (1952). Also, in 1952, Harold Hopkins designed the fibroscope, heralding fiberoptic endoscopy. In 1953, Watson and Crick showed that DNA was composed of a double helix chain of complementary nucleotides encoding human genes. John Gibbon performed the first open heart surgery using a cardiopulmonary bypass machine (1953), and D.W. Gordon Murray used arterial grafts to replace the left anterior descending coronary artery (the coronary artery bypass graft). Oral contraceptives (birth control pills) were invented in 1954. That same year, Salk developed an effective killed vaccine for polio, followed just three years later with Sabin's live polio vaccine. Thus, in the 1950s, the two most dreadful scourges of developed countries, tuberculosis and polio, were virtually eradicated.

Don't believe those reports announcing longer life expectancies for Americans. The people who are living longer today are the people who were born in the twentieth century and benefited directly from the advances in medicine occurring prior to 1960. Nobody has any way of knowing whether children born in the twenty-first century will live longer lives than their twentieth century predecessors. But their chances for long lives do not look very good. Here are some of the medical reversals that have occurred since 1960.

1. The worldwide spread of AIDS, a virus-spread disease that could have been eradicated with a few simple precautions, but was not.

2. The emergence of multiple drug-resistant tuberculosis. The root cause of the rise of resistant TB is the incomplete treatment of identified patients.

3. The emergence of multiple antibiotic resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus.

4. Global warming, loss of the ozone layer, and other consequences of atmospheric pollution.

5. Mass starvation.

6. Reduced access to potable water affecting the vast majority of humans.

7. Planetary scale deforestation and desertification.

8. Monoculture of a few favored crops replacing biodiversity.

9. Large scale emergence of invasive and destructive species of plants and animals.

10. Increases in the total number of U.S. deaths from cancer.

11. The re-emergence of resistant insect and other vectors carrying viral and parasitic diseases.

12. Astronomical costs of new medications for chronic diseases, unaffordable to all but a small percentage of the world population.

13. The rising worldwide incidence of obesity and sequelae disorders.

14. The rapid geographic spread of outbreaks of new strains of influenza and other evolving viruses, including HIV and hemorrhagic fever viruses.


-© 2010 Jules Berman

key words: complexity, scientific progress, jules j berman, medical history, informatics, software
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.