Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Matt Ridley Gets It Wrong

Matt Ridley's a bright guy, who, apart from leading the bank Northern Rock into disaster and nationalization, has produced some entertaining stuff, none more so than "Genome", one of the best layman books on science I have read.

But now he is screwing up,  expressing opinions that, if they catch on,  could greatly set back the rate of technological progress. Here's what Ridley writes: 

"Heretical as it may sound, “basic science” isn’t nearly as productive of new inventions as we tend to think. When you examine the history of innovation, you find, again and again, that scientific breakthroughs are the effect, not the cause, of technological change.....The discovery of the structure of DNA depended heavily on X-ray crystallography of biological molecules, a technique developed in the wool industry to try to improve textiles.  " 

Well, with the X-ray statement Ridley has it stunningly wrong. X-ray crystallography has been behind many billions of dollars of  marketed technology, including drug discovery, biotechnology and materials design, but it absolutely was not developed in the wool industry. Leeds was the centre of the textile industry in Britain, and the university did a lot of textile research. I was an undergrad in the Astbury Centre for Biophysics in Leeds University.  The textile connection was important, and W.T. Astbury looked in the 1920s and 1930s at X-ray diffraction from wool and other fibres. And he was a real pioneer, indeed. But Astbury was a university professor, not an industry researcher. And crystallography was not 'developed in the wool industry' but rather earlier in Germany  by Roentgen and von Laue and then in Britain by the Braggs, Perutz, Crick and others. All were working in universities, doing basic research, and not in industry. Theirs was the work that formed the physical basis of modern X-ray crystallography and the 1953 DNA discovery. 

Now, as Ridley stresses, often trial and error does indeed play a large role in discovery. Indeed, we use it ourselves, sometimes, when searching for new drugs. But today's high-tech discovery is  no longer based on  "practical men tinkering around until they have better machines".  Any 'tinkering' these days is based on a solid scientific foundation, developed mostly by government-funded research.

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