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2017-09-03

Printing Life

It has been some time since 3D printers entered our collective consciousness as useful tools for more than toys and demonstration objects. Even firearms and certainly synthetic prosthetic limbs seem capable of being 3D-printed. As ageing societies face increasing shortages of donor organs for transplantation, the use of 3D print technology in medicine, although perhaps among the most obvious and compelling, is new but likely to disrupt synthetic biology as few tools have done before. Small wonder it won first prize 2016 at the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) contest, an MIT creation. The method enables printing intact tissues and potentially even entire organs using 3D bioINK tissue printing technology.

While printing biological material such as cartilage is already established state-of-the-art, printing complex cell tissue still presented notable challenges. They were resolved by printing layers of living cells with a 3D printer into a biocompatible matrix in a petri dish. In the past, hydrogels were used to supply a gelatin-like structure that is only later populated by cells. This “scaffolding” complicates printing and creates unnatural coherence between cells.

Instead, the students at two universities in Munich, Ludwig-Maximilian University and Technical University of Munich, developed a proprietary “biological ink” similar to a two-component adhesive to print living cells directly in 3D. Its main component is biotin, also known as vitamin H or B7 that is loaded onto the cellular surface. The second component, streptavidin, is a protein that binds biotin and thus provides the biochemical adhesive proper. In addition, high-volume proteins were equipped with biotin groups in order to create cross-networking structures. When a suspension of these cells is “printed” into a concentrated solution of the protein components, they form the requisite 3D structure and the bioINK tissue printer forms layers of scalable, formable tissue of living cells, ready for transplant. 

2017-08-01

Shepherding Innovation: Two Very Different Models

Innovation as a socio-intellectual phenomenon also reflects the multitude of ways to skin a cat.

In absolute terms, Switzerland has long been recognized as the world’s most innovative country. Of course, the criteria one picks can oddly vary results: if you count patents per capita, Eindhoven, domicile of Philips, is the innovation capital of the world, followed by San Diego. Israel does not even figure on that list.

The secret to Swiss success has been reliance on cheap and abundant capital including foreign investment, highly selected skilled immigrants, and two world-renowned Federal Institutes of Technology (in Zurich and Lausanne). Over 60 percent of R&D expenditures come from the private sector. The country tops the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, the EU’s Innovation Union Scoreboard, the Global Innovation Index, and patent applications in Europe. But despite comparatively very low taxes for an industrialized country, Switzerland is neither an entrepreneurship hub – its innovation is driven by large and well-established companies, not startups – nor is it known for easy access to venture capital or IPOs. To an extent, it is fair to call the Swiss model of innovation establishment-driven. As such, it is extremely successful and sustainable by any standard.

On the other hand, Israel, a.k.a. Start-Up Nation, a.k.a. Silicon Wadi, a country roughly the size of New Jersey, is world champion at churning out technology at a feverish pace with far more limited resources and infrastructure. It is also world champion in R&D expenditures, clocking 4.3 percent of GDP, almost half of it from foreign investors. It has been called the best country to found a startup and the worst to keep it alive. But it is also the world’s leading model for public-private partnership in innovation.

Take Yissum, a technology transfer vehicle of Hebrew University. Established 1964, it is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the university, it accounts for almost 10,000 patents and 120 spin-offs. When a patent is registered, the inventors / scientists take 40 percent of patent revenue; 20 percent goes to their lab, and 40 percent to the university. This covers one-tenth of Hebrew University’s research budget. Long-term research cooperation exists with several multinational enterprises that established over 320 R&D centers. The downside of market orientation is equally obvious: applied research is prioritized over foundational research, further exacerbating its lag.

More than 8000 startups were created in Israel in the last decade. They employ 500,000 individuals. Just in 2016, some 1,400 new companies were founded. Even though, like everywhere else, the vast majority of startups does not survive, there are at any given time some 6,000 operational startups. The country has no choice but to try new things. Its domestic market is too small, and a foothold in foreign markets requires products the consumer has not realized a need for yet.

Venture Capital finance also follows its own model (although only $4.8 bn was raised in 2016). Terra Venture Partners, a private business development fund, operates in an environment Silicon Valley can only dream of: every shekel invested by the fund will be matched with six shekels by the state.

The government’s Israel Innovation Authority, by now an agency independent of the Ministry of Economics, funds 2,000 projects from all walks of life, with the exception of foundational and military research. Select projects are funded with up to 85 percent of their budget requirements, while university research with up to 90 percent. Israel Innovation Authority recovers 35 percent of its investments on average. If it were more, the agency would conclude that they took insufficient risk. But if a funded company is sold abroad, it must repay three times the amount received.

Not surprisingly, and very much based on the factors described above, the international advantage of Switzerland lay in health and material sciences, while Israel has become a focal point in data sciences, alternative energy, and natural resource substitution.

2017-07-01

The Short-lived Fallacy of Biometrics

When MasterCard introduced last year in twelve countries a feature identifying the payor via fingerprint scanner or selfie, it took one further step toward abandoning the immensely flawed concept of chosen passwords and PINs. Considering the deplorable state of imaginative solutions – the globally dominant password being 123456 and the most-used PIN being 1234 – the move seemed long overdue. Another contribution to security breakdowns is the mushrooming number of “different” password requirements no one can seriously be expected to remember, particularly in combination with a multitude of user names and ever-simplified “forgot password” functions.

HSBC has additionally enabled identification via voice recognition software that verifies some 100 unique speech characteristics such as speed, vocal traction, nasal tones and enough others that are said to work even when the user suffers from a cold. Wells Fargo and also a range of other banks enabled log-in via retina scan. Canadian start-up Nymi authenticates individuals through their pulse taken by a wearable prototype interacting with near field communication terminals.

While banks and fintechs may be right in concluding that this increases safety beyond passwords, there is no question that biometrics will inaugurate just another round in the perpetual arms race between security and illegitimate access.

Its limitations are increasingly obvious.

At the 2014 Chaos Communication Congress, hacker Starbug a.k.a. Jan Krissler showed how a picture taken with a single lens reflex camera of German minister of defense Ursula von der Leyen from a distance of three meters sufficed to reproduce her thumb print with Verifinger, a graphics software tool.

Research at Michigan State University developed a simple method to print pictures of fingerprints on a pedestrian printer with a resolution sufficient to fool fingerprint readers, unlocking smartphones and completing transactions via Apple Pay.

The ACLU has showed that selfie scans heavily depend on lighting conditions and may be influenced by changes in hairdo, ageing or weight changes.

Background noises and recording issues may interfere with identification by voice recognition.

When hackers accessed 40,000 accounts at British Tesco Bank and withdrew funds from 9,000 accounts, the monetary loss of £2.5 million was the least of it and highlighted the consequences of compromised biometric databases: while one may change passwords with a minimum of fuss, not quite the same can be said for getting a new fingerprint or face – here, the method of identification is compromised, potentially permanently. Turns out that biometrics may be worse than passwords - and hackers are still notoriously at least one step ahead of the game.

2017-06-17

Bow-tying DNA

Building on research by CalTech’s Paul W.K. Rothemund, it has been known for considerable time that DNA is folded up to form nanoscale shapes and patterns. The restiform genetic makeup of mammals is folded in bows in order which enables even distant areas to form contacts. It is read by dragging it through cohesin, a ring of proteins, until a stopper is reached. It has been known for some time already that enhancers amplify and activate genes that are positioned far away on the thread of DNA. This can most probably be explained through a precise process of folding back DNA so that enhancers come in contact with the “right” genes. By a commonly accepted hypothesis, this folding back happens as a ring of cohesin molecules surrounds the DNA thread at a random location. It is pulled through the ring until it reaches a “thick” spot that acts as a “stopper.” This thickening is caused by a protein named CTCF that attached itself to the DNA, targeting distant DNA sections for direct contact.

Experiments with mural cells showed that cohesin does indeed move along the DNA thread over long distances with transcription (or “reading” DNA information) acting as an engine. This process is likely powered by RNA polymerase, an enzyme that carries out transcription, probably not least to be able to “read” genetic information in the first place.

2017-05-01

Molecular-sized ball bearings

It turns out that functionality we know in everyday life also exists at a molecular-sized nano-level. Measurements by mass spectrometers had shown some time ago that precisely thirteen boron atoms can enter into a particularly stable form called a magic cluster. It has a flat structure and consists of two concentric rings: an inner ring consisting of three boron atoms and an outer ring consisting of ten boron atoms.

Some years ago, theoretical chemist Thomas Heine, now at the University of Leipzig, predicted that these two rings would permit almost frictionless distortion against each other without affecting the overall stability of the molecule in any ways. This results in a molecular-sized ball bearing that permits a virtually frictionless counter-rotating movement of the atomic rings.

Proving this prediction was not free of challenges and could be done only through spectroscopic measurements with a free electron laser at Fritz-Haber-Institute in Berlin. Commercially available lasers are unsuitable for this proof because it requires extremely intense laser radiation in a narrowly defined wavelength range. By measuring the infrared spectrum and accompanying calculations of quantum mechanics it was possible to prove the functionality of the molecular ball bearing.

This is one of the first practical indications that quantum effects may be put to targeted use as part of the functionality of molecular systems. Despite the fact that applications are still in the distant future, their promise and potential is immense. This comes as no surprise that the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for discoveries in the area of molecular machines.


2017-04-01

The Scissor Ladies

I cannot claim that I ever was a fan of Edward Scissorhands. Not enough dark imagination, I guess. But, alas, it brought back the concept of genetic scissors that have bookmakers now give amazing odds on a Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Emmanuelle Charpentier and UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna for their development of CRIPR/Cas9 technology that does not create Frankenscissors such as Edward’s, but is a precision tool for the manipulation of gene sequences by slicing DNA molecules at a chosen spot. Cas9 (or CRISPR associated protein 9) is an RNA-guided DNA endonuclease enzyme associated with the CRISPR adaptive immunity system consisting of segments of prokaryotic DNA that contain Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. Each repetition is followed by short segments of ‘spacer DNA’ from previous exposure to a bacteriophage virus or plasmid.

Now that I reliably lost 99.99% of my gentle readers, let me mention the rare consensus that the peculiar acronym describes “genome editing,” which, according to MIT Technology Review, is the most important discovery since the dawn of biotechnology in the 1970s. For Science, it was the Breakthrough of the Year 2015. Neither surprises if one takes a look at the perplexing list of awards and honors of the all-European scientist Charpentier. Her idea was a combination of Cas9, which was already known, with an RNA molecule that would dock onto CRISPR/Cas9 together with tracrRNA. It is how bacteria cut foreign viral genes out of their own DNA – the equivalent of a surgeon operating on herself.

Genome editing is considerably more precise than classical genetic engineering where to this day nobody could predict where exactly newly installed genes will be placed. This was a major point of contention on the part of critics of genetic engineering. CRISPR/Cas9, on the other hand, permits precise insertion of changes to the genome through directing the DNA “scissor” Cas9 by means of so-called “guide RNA” to the desired location. The “fracture” in DNA can subsequently be repaired in different ways. To produce guide RNA, one needs to know the sequence of the targeted gene or DNA segment – a set can be produced within one day for about $20, making the technology accessible to any lab. Most molecular biologists would never have dared to dream of a tool like CRISPR/Cas9: it is simple, fast, precise and cheap to cut and modify the genome of any organism – bacteria, plants, animals, humans. It was inspired by an antiviral defense mechanism bacteria use to eliminate virus segments of DNA from their own double helix. If one is to compare conventional gene technology with open-heart surgery, genome editing is the equivalent of a minimally invasive procedure.  It permits scanning of DNA and cutting out parts of it selectively. It has been used to render malaria mosquitoes harmless, to edit plant genomes, it may be used to eliminate and replace part of human DNA, leading to new therapeutic methods in dealing with genetic diseases.

Regulatory issues abound. Because CRISPR/Cas9 can be used in different ways, biologists distinguish three types: Type I performs a single-point editing of a base within the DNA sequence, exchanging one letter for another. In the case of Type II, just a few letters are “edited.” Type III, finally, introduces a larger piece of foreign DNA into the cut. Type I and Type II edits do not result in a genetically modified organism because their edits result in point mutations that also occur naturally by crossing and/or recombination. They occur naturally all the time and are the engine of evolution. Conventional breeding methods also change the genome. Mutagenesis, for example, exposes plants to chemicals or radiation, causing untold mutations. Nobody knows where they occur, and most are harmful. Such plants are considered “natural” and are marketed without additional safety checks anywhere. Why should plants with a more surgically and not randomly altered genome be at a legal or regulatory disadvantage?

Contrary to the U.S. and Canada, the EU and Switzerland place greater importance on the procedure generating a plant or livestock than on the final product. If elements are introduced into the genome of an organism that was prepared outside the organism, it is considered genetically modified under EU law. This would include all plants or animals edited through CRISPR/Cas9 or another genome editing technology. But there is a catch: the material introduced by this technology, namely the guide RNA and the Cas9 enzyme, do not exist in the final product. These organisms do not differ from their conspecifics – how should the use of technology be controlled when its application cannot be proven? Even the Swiss Commission of Experts on Biosafety expressed reservations about strict regulation of such organisms, finding that, since products cannot be distinguished from others generally, they should be treated as equivalent in terms of consumer safety. While in the U.S. first plants with edited genomes are brought to market, the EU has yet to decide how to characterize such organisms.  

CRISPR/Cas9 can help answer questions about the origin of congenital diseases and develop new drugs. It permits reproduction of genetic mutations that lead to disease, be it in an animal model, in plants, or in organoids. But it could also be used for eugenics by eliminating disfavored traits from the genome – arguably the most politically, morally, and ethically sensitive issue in genetics since the 1930s. Recent discoveries of certain genetic roots of crime make scientists nervous. Harvard’s George McDonald Church, who optimized CRISPR/Cas9 for human genome engineering, wants to influence the development of ova and sperm, and Chinese scientists, including Junjiu Huang at Sun Yat-sen University at Guangzhou, have manipulated embryos affected by genetic disorders. In 2015, beta-thalassemia, a blood disorder, was first edited in human zygotes. While Charpentier is adamantly opposed to editing the human embryo, there is no compelling reason other than existing EU regulation to abstain from exploring further use of this technology. Her colleague Doudna, also opposed to such experiments, on the other hand appears more resigned and realistic about the likelihood of such developments. If opposition to stem cell research is any guide, the futility of attempting to estop science and research becomes self-evident. Public debate is a useful necessity given the lightning speed of evolution in genome engineering. Since genetic interventions have become possible, one should remember the adage that if something can be done, it likely will be. Regulating rather than prohibiting in principle appears to hold more realistic promise.

2017-03-10

The evolutionary game theory of conditional cooperation

In my mathematician’s incarnation, and in my loitering around the Institute Vienna Circle, I came across Austrian Karl Sigmund, the 2003 Gauss Lecturer. Along with John Maynard Smith (the “Etonian communist”) and American George Robert Price, he is at least one parent of evolutionary game theory, a fascinating branch of mathematics that applies game theory to biology or, rather, the evolving populations of life forms. Its tools are valuable to my interest in crowd phenomena. It defines a mathematical framework of contests, strategies and analytics for Darwinian competition. There are indeed mathematical criteria to predict the resulting prevalence of such competing strategies, and evolutionary game theory establishes a rational basis for altruistic behaviors within the Darwinian process. Unlike classical game theory, it centers on the dynamics of strategy change; its determinants that are not just competing strategies but, more importantly, the frequency of occurrence of these strategies within a given population.

Humans have superior adaptive abilities. They are far better than apes at imitation. And they are receptive to praise and reprimand. Man is the perfect pet – domesticated like no other, by ourselves. It is not unusual that a species practices selective breeding on its own kind. Sexual selection is well known since Darwin. An oft-cited example is the peacock’s tail: it does not facilitate survival but only impressing the female of the species – although recent research puts that in question. A male characteristic and the female preference for it spread across the population.

Of course, domestication does not only require selective breeding of just any given characteristic. Said characteristic must also have an economic benefit. What is the economic utility of humans? They don’t contribute commodities such as wool or eggs, but they contribute services. There are other service animals as well: horses serve as means of transportation, dogs as a hunting tool or an alarm device. What purpose do humans serve? They serve as partners of other humans. A partner is someone amenable to assistance, but only on condition of reciprocity.

Indeed, human readiness to cooperate with partners, their “conditional cooperation,” is a salient characteristic. And it is unique. While bees or ants also cooperate on a large scale, they do so only within their beehive or anthill, that is to say, with their own siblings. Humans are rather unique in that they are capable of cooperating also with individuals to whom they are not related.

Such cooperation is grounds for the success of our species. There appear to be no natural limits to the degree of our communal enterprise. That seems odd: should evolution not favor creatures that primarily maximize their own interests?

2017-02-01

Carbon nanotube transistors of the future


Moore’s Law has become an endangered species. No longer is it a safe assumption that the number of transistors in processors doubles every two years. Intel abandoned this expectation at the ISC 2016 Conference in Frankfurt, Germany. Processor performance barely increases even though they become more energy efficient, and the growth of transistor density has slowed down remarkably. Since considerable time, the industry is also looking for alternatives to silicon as physical limits to its useful further miniaturization are approaching.

Enter carbon nanotubes. The University of Wisconsin at Madison has reached a major milestone in manufacturing transistors out of carbon nanotubes that leave its silicon cousins way behind in terms of conductivity. An increase of 90% in current was measured by pitting a 140 nm carbon nanotube transistor against a 90 nm silicon P-channel MOSFET transistor. The carbon nanotube FET did well even under the disadvantage of a larger node, but the jury is still out on a comparison to current 14 nm FinFET or Tri-Gate transistors.

Carbon nanotubes consist of rolled single-atom layers. They are among the most highly conductive materials known to man. Carbon-based transistors might support a five-fold increase of performance compared to silicon while energy consumption will decrease to one-fifth of present levels.  But manufacturing had always run into problems with minuscule metal contaminations that massively affected conduct of electricity, and thus performance. New technology developed at UW Madison resolved that by filtering impurities with the assistance of a polymer that leaves 99.99 percent pure carbon layers.

This permitted a new production process that places carbon nanotube transistors on a 1x1 inch wafer. But to render the technology interesting and affordable for commercial use, this process needs to become scalable to produce larger wafers and higher transistor densities. First experiments appear to have been successful. Still, several years will likely pass before carbon nanotubes will appear in commercially available processors, since chip manufacturers will also need to invest heavily in adjusting their manufacturing processes and factories.

RAM might take this leap a lot sooner. Fujitsu is already working on commercialization of nano-RAM (NRAM) based on carbon nanotubes and plans to initiate mass production based on licensed technology of Nantero, the world leader in carbon nanotube electronics, by 2018.

Along the concept, if not the formula, of Moore’s Law, somewhere between 20-50 years out, further miniaturization of IT elements and devices (but also their transition and fusion into biotechnology and transhumanism) will be dominated by a transition from software into hardware, a confusion of the two so complete that it will literally become impossible to know where the boundary between them ought to be drawn. And that is precisely the point: perhaps there shouldn’t be a boundary, especially if the next step or, rather, quantum leap, as some conjecture, should be DNA computing.

2017-01-02

Wearable air conditioning? Passively cooling the human body with nanoPE


The era of global warming creates days when virtually any textile cover may appear too much. That is because all garments heat, even if that effect depends on the type and thickness of used filaments. A new, low-cost material developed at Stanford by the research group of Yi Cui has now developed passive cooling as a breakthrough method of thermal management. It might even result in large energy savings by reducing expenses for air conditioning. Their fabric, nanoPE (nanoporous polyethylene) textile may be thought of as an enhancement on the theme of saran wrap. It consists of two layers of intransparent and nanoporous polyethylene film interspersed with a layer of cotton mesh for strength and thickness. It virtually does not reflect infrared radiation emitted by the human body, producing a cooling effect unavailable with conventional fabric.  It is also permeable to water vapor, which makes it an effective and scalable textile for personal thermal management. What is not entirely clear yet is how nanoPE behaves under UV radiation, in heavy use, and after multiple laundry cycles.

The polyethylene material, already commonly used in battery manufacturing, has a particular nanostructure with pores that measure 50 to 1,000 nm in diameter – a spacing that allows the passage of the body’s infrared radiation yet causes sunlight to scatter and reflect upon contact with its surface. The nanoPE fabric reflected 99% of visible light, contrary to commercially available polyethylene that let 80% of visible light pass through. The resulting skin surface temperature was 3.6oF (2.7oC) lower than under ordinary cotton fabric.

Because few studies looked into engineering the radiation characteristics of textiles, this research would appear to open new avenues to passive temperature management without involving outside energy sources, merely by tuning materials so as to dissipate or trap infrared radiation.

2016-12-01

Accounting for the value of innovation


Readers of my blog[1] and other writings[2] have reliably identified the shortfalls of accounting methods as one of my passions-in-interest. And, sure enough, I am ready to take a stab at it again.

Innovation is arguably one of the few nearly unlimited renewable resources. The human collective has proved capable of accumulating an incredible quantity of knowledge over the past 300 years, setting out to transcend new horizons like a mountaineer that reaches summits only to discover ever taller peaks. Humans as a species continue to increase their dominance, but in an elliptic fashion reminiscent of ‘three steps ahead, two steps back’ – a perpetual pendulum swing between solutions and their unintended or, most often, unforeseen consequences. We burnt a lot of coal and later hydrocarbons to fuel the industrial revolution, only to discover that CO2 is now accumulating in the atmosphere and not going away that soon. Europeans discovered in the 19th century that they did not have to import sugar from the Caribbean but can grow sugar beets domestically. Prices plunged as everyone could suddenly afford it. Then came a surprise: sugar ruined people’s teeth. They discovered how to protect and harden teeth with fluoride rather than cut back on sweets. Tap water and certain foods in many countries are now spiked with fluorides. Next, it turned out that sugar promotes obesity and diabetes. Nature hits back at every progress, forcing continuous innovation so as not to fall behind in the innovation game where no solution is ever final.

For example, innovation in terms of robotics is now at a similar stage as computers were in the 1960s: at that time, it had become clear that there would be computers, but not quite obvious what would be done with them. Similarly, we are just beginning to discover the potential of robotics without having a tangible sense of the journey’s destination. Robots will take all kinds of shapes and sizes and take on helpful tasks not conceivable to date. There is research on nano-sized injectable robots programmed to attack cancer cells, but it has barely scraped the surface yet.

Another area is genetic engineering. It has been around since the dawn of humanity. Think of horses – the breeds we have are not “natural,” they were bred by protracted human interference and selection. God did not create poodles – people did. But breeding is a slow and crude tool for genetic engineering. Genetic modification can achieve results a lot more expeditiously and with greater precision. It will be essential because climate is changing faster than “natural” breeding will, and since it does not appear to be possible to reverse climate change, it is living species that will need to be re-engineered to adapt to a changed environment. It is less likely that humans will be modified anytime soon, but plants, animals, grain, fish, mammals, penguins will be. European resistance notwithstanding, genetic engineering will be done, in the U.S., in Asia or wherever. Somebody will do it because there is a benefit to innovation.

More recently, innovation primarily creates “growth” by creating “progress” – allowing the same output to be produced with less input (of time, knowledge, skill, or other factors). It adds new products that had not previously existed: ten years ago, smart phones did not exist. While all this is “growth,” conventional metrics fail it. Products improve continually – vehicle safety in automobiles improved dramatically compared to some decades ago, although the task, speed limit, and traffic rules remained essentially unchanged. All these evolutionary changes form part of “growth,” but metrics for accounting purposes ignore qualitative aspects. Take anesthesia – a vast improvement of the quality of patient experience that became common since the 1860s. Yet, the change it brought is not reflected anywhere in GDP statistics. The same is true of antibiotics and many other innovations: as their price comes down, and it typically does rather quickly, it ceases to appear as a blip on GDP metrics entirely – although there have been studies putting the price tag for resistance to antibiotics by 2050 at “$100 trillion.” Our post-millennial observation of “shrinking growth” almost certainly reflects profound flaws in methodology of measurement and valuation.

Another, probably even crasser failure of valuation and accounting metrics is its treatment of time. A great measure of innovation and progress creates efficiencies of time, freeing up considerable human resources in the process. Leisure time is valuable, but not to GDP accounting, and therefore not to “growth.” An economy can “grow” without producing more goods, by creating the same output with considerably lesser input. In the future, many people will work considerably less than they do today – a process that has started already. While it continues to be ignored by regulators and managers, there is no question that it will profoundly change the work place. And it is happening already as we speak: at the beginning of the twentieth century, the average worker spent 3200 working hours a year. Today, the average is half that number. This is a form of growth. Once robots will produce our food and garments, we will work even less, trending toward a world where work is optional and almost exclusively creative, thoughtful and intellectual. “Growth” in terms of “progress” may mean that we produce more steel or pump more oil, but it may also mean that we have more time to enjoy and reflect on our existence.

Technological innovation took off in Europe at the dawn of the modern age when people became less respectful of tradition and the knowledge handed down by previous generations. A certain respect for the wisdom of ancestors is natural and necessary. In ancient China, it was believed that truth had been revealed by mystical means to people who had lived in the distant past. Similar traditions existed in Judaism, in Islam and in medieval Christianity. Aristotle and the classical canon had answers for everything. But their answers did not hold up to verification. The enlightenment led people to think for themselves and seek evidence for the teachings in ancient scriptures. Galileo, Torricelli, Tycho Brahe all discovered things wholly inconsistent with the ancient canon. Concluding that nothing should be believed that had not been tested and verified, innovation started with the realization that one’s ancestors had been wrong on many issues. Only this realization unlocked the prison of respect for established tradition and knowledge and liberated the human mind – but nothing to date has liberated it from the constraints of valuation methods that insist on ignoring supremely qualitative aspects.

2016-11-04

The Three Princes of Serendip or Valuing the Unintended Consequences of Our Actions


It is a charming story that Sir Horace Walpole recounted in a letter to Horace Mann of January 28, 1754, coining serendipity as he made a passing observation on a sociopolitical event of the day: “this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.” He derived it from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka, where it was part of the title of a “silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip; as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of … One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description) was of my Lord Shaftesbury, who happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon’s, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs. Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table.”

Now, this is not the kind of serendipity that interests me much, but it may have captured the imagination of the 4th Earl of Orford. Yet, the role of serendipity in all things human remains underrated to an almost shocking extent, and so I encountered with great interest the posthumous oeuvre of Robert King Merton & Elinor Barber, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science (2004). It was penned by two great Columbians: while Barber gave early thought to scholarly diversity, Merton, a founding father of modern sociology, put sociology of science on the map, for which he received the National Medal of Science. My fascination with the topic, prodded along with a Times Higher Education review bringing up Helga Novotny’s memories of Sir Karl Popper Memorial Lecture at LSE in 2013, brought me to her The Cunning of Uncertainty (2015).  

Alexander Fleming was one of those who could not complain about disfavor by Lady Luck. In 1928, the Scottish bacteriologist noticed that his staphylococci cultures had been contaminated by fungal mold spores of the genus penicillium notatum that happened to kill the germs he had cultured to study causation of pneumonia. Fleming’s discovery was, of course, just one of several possible outcomes: the spores could not have entered or not have taken hold in his culture. He could have found a different method to attack bacterial germs. Or another scientist could have ventured across mold spores in due time.

Sir Isaac Newton saw an apple fall from a tree and started thinking about gravity, perhaps the single most serendipitous use of this fruit since Eve.

And serendipity’s cornucopia is not without conditions and demands: fortuitous accident serves us only if we recognize its significance – and here, Walpole made a major point: “for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description,” and there are many who are all too obsessed with what they are looking for so they neglect solutions of equal or greater value outside their current focus. High-temperature superconductivity was discovered by a French team before Johannes Georg Bednorz and Karl Alexander Müller did at IBM Labs and fetched the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physics – but they had failed to notice its significance.

In 1922, an unhealthy habit of inhaling strong cigar smoke enabled Otto Stern and Walter Gerlach to make quantum spin observable: as the German scientists channeled silver atoms through a magnetic field, the chain smokers continued to chuff cigars. Sulphur in cigar smoke reacted with the silver atoms, enabling them to make directional spin of particles visible for the first time.  Bretislav Friedrich and Dudley Herschbach, then at Harvard, proved in a 2003 paper “Stern and Gerlach: How a Bad Cigar Helped Reorient Atomic Physics.”

As foundational research is increasingly under pressure by governments and research funding to produce applied results, open innovation and distributed innovation are breaking new ground for serendipity that remains indispensable to pure science. 

But for almost any area of policy, even more essential than serendipity – if closely related to it conceptually (as outcomes not foreseen and intended by purposeful action, as, again, Merton described them) – are unintended consequences, a seriously neglected aspect in any area of research and development.  They include unexpected benefits, unexpected detriments (“blowbacks”), and what may be described as “perverse results,” virtuous as well as vicious circles of complex chains of events that reinforce themselves through feedback loops. I plan to write more here about these phenomena in the coming year, as part of a more generalized theory of rational choice, Black Swan events, diverse priorities, and the influence of probability and randomness on different branches of logic.