The rise of inward looking populism has led to a desolate delineation of the future. While the downfall of a global culture and liberal attitudes leaves one melancholic, there might be a silver lining to this bedlam! A multi-polar world begets the advance of science in ways a world dominated by a single player will not be able to. The expectation we should keep from the near future is leaps in scientific knowledge and that does not include the gimmicky gadgets that have surged in the past decade. 

To most of us, the 21st century represents an age of technological advance. Our television screens are sleeker, our phones smarter, our cars more efficient and our trips to space more frequent- where is the paradigm shift or growth in scientific thought in all of this? The fall of the Soviet Union has been evident since 1980s, and so has the decline in scientific progress. Computers, the internet, antibiotics, space travel, electronics- were all invented in a bi-polar world under the spell of a cold war. The cycle of history illustrated in an earlier post- History of the World, lends an effective timeline to investigate the following hypothesis:

A multi-polar, interactive world provokes advancement of science. The two preconditions that the hypothesis therefore lays out for the emergence of a genuine headway in scientific thought, is that there be a world with more than one dominant group/ nation/ society and; that there is some form of communication between the various groups or countries in the world; with the communication sparking a competitive streak in the pursuit of knowledge.

Phase I: The Era of Many Civilizations

In the earlier stages of the ancient civilizations, innovations were sporadic and scattered over time. The alphabet was invented in 1700 BCE (in Phoenicia), scissors in 1500 BCE (in Egypt) and glass in 1000 BCE (in Lebanon). The true disruptors, that defined the progress of human civilization only came into being when the various civilizations interacted with each other and made conscious efforts to export their thought processes and philosophies; this is when competition ensued. The advent of Alexander the Great’s expedition into the ‘east’ probably is the best marker in time for a phase of such interaction; 4th century BCE.

Large scale production of effective tools was only possible when human beings were able to control iron and mould it. 5th century BCE saw the invention of cast iron (in China). The blast furnace was invented between 3rd and 2nd century BCE (in China). This propelled the iron age societies forward.

It is around this time frame that we saw the birth of another major innovation- paper; in 2nd century BCE (in China). We very well understand today that data is currency. The ability to record and transmit information is what enables the future generations to advance. Though writing itself originated in 3000BC (in Sumer, Mesopotamia) followed by the alphabet in 1700 BCE, it is paper that first unleashed the potential of information and data.

As the dialogue between societies and kingdoms persisted, so did the age of innovation. The arch dam in 1st century BCE (in Roman Republic) empowered humans to practice agriculture without concern for the vagaries of the monsoon gods. Recordings by the hero of Alexandria place the invention of the steam turbine in 1st century AD, a device we use in marine propulsion till date. Oil-wells and bore-well drilling originated in 347 AD; a life without fossil fuels and hence oil drilling is still a distant reality.

As the ancient empires disintegrated, around 5th and 6th century AD, a lull came about in scientific inventions; a lull that was not in terms of quantum but was evident in terms of the significance of the creations and discoveries made.

Phase II: The Medieval Tech-Age

The second phase of progress in scientific thought started showing signs just after the commencement of the crusades in 11th century AD. 12th century saw the discovery of the relationship between force, work, kinetic energy (by Averroes) as well as between force and acceleration (by Al Bagdadi). Ibn Al Nafis discovered initial concepts of pulmonary circulation in 1242 AD. The period of direct conflict was however marked more with inventions in arms and ammunition including gunpowder, cannons and rockets. This observation offers a possible tweak to my original hypothesis:

While there must be competition, it should not be manifested in a direct physical engagement (war) of the competing groups.

The fate of the crusades was sealed by nature through the plague that engulfed most of Europe in 14th century AD. As the European  powers resurrected themselves as an equal force to the empires of the East, so did scientific thought. European powers and Renaissance gathered steam from 15th to 17th century AD. Towards the later part of that time frame,they started engaging more actively with the other poles of the world via sea routes; and the trotting horse of advancement started galloping.

17th Century AD could possibly be one of the most defining centuries in cultivating what can be called modern scientific thought. Kepler’s law of planetary motion, Boyle’s law of ideal gases, Newton’s discovery of gravity and the three physical laws of motion, logarithms (though many of us would curse this invention), measurement of speed of light and discovering that white light is essentially a combination of the entire spectrum: this list reads like my 8th grade Physics curriculum (the first year it was taught as a separate subject to me). The fact that most of the content of my first Physics textbook was written in 17th century AD, in itself highlights the significance of that century.

Biology was not left behind in this century either. Blood circulation, the cell, the identification of fossils as organic remains embedded in layers of sediment- all of which define our understanding of life on Earth today- were discovered in 17th century AD. The basis of modern chemistry- the law of conservation of mass- was also discovered in this century: A century that was marked by immense competition among the European Nations as they all set out to establish colonies.

The progress continued even as the European nations fought each other via quasi-proxy wars in their colonies. 18th century saw the invention of boring machine, the first machine tool. This was followed by the power loom. 19th century witnessed further leaps in knowledge with electromagnetic induction, theory of electromagnetism and the electron being discovered in physics; the periodic table and  radioactivity of certain elements being discovered by chemists and; the concepts of natural selection and genetics being discovered by biologists. The greenhouse gas effect was also discovered during the 19th century (though some continue to stay in denial). Locomotives and automobiles were invented. All of these developments have arguably shaped the modern world in which we live today.

The medieval advancement age died down as the British Empire under Queen Victoria rendered the world to be an uni-polar one for a brief decade in 1880s.

Phase III: The Modern Times

Where the previous phase left off in 1870s with the invention of the light bulb, the telephone and stainless steel; with Germans, Russians and Ottomans becoming formidable global forces in the last decade of the 19th century AD, humans once again set off on a knowledge drive. 1893 AD saw the invention of the diesel engine and 1898 AD saw the successful synthesis of polyethylene (the most common plastic in the world today).

The journey continued with airplanes (1903) and instantaneous transmission of images- TV broadcast- (1909). However, as the groups engaged in direct physical conflict, the focus of innovation became skewed. The repetition of such a pattern can be seen yet again during the second world war.

Barring the world war periods, though, until the emergence of USA as the single most powerful country in the world in 1970s, this phase of scientific inquiry saw the creation of penicillin and therefore antibiotics, turbo jet engines, contraceptives, space travel, computers and the internet. If there ever was a social media page for the modern times, all of the aforementioned would certainly make it in the ‘About Me’ section of the page.

What we see today with the evolution of the digital age and smartphones is merely the ‘gadgetification’ of the post world war innovations and discoveries. They are only manifestations of the same principles of science. Science under a US only dominated world has taken a back-seat.

Phase IV: Science Fiction No Longer?

The giant of today- USA- will be dethroned. Another assertion I made in my earlier post- History of the World– however, stands corrected. The gains in technology will be propelled further in this bi/ multi-polar world. What we saw in the last 3 decades was popularization of the already established principles of technology; the commercialization of science.

The impending gains in scientific knowledge would add to the uncertainty in investing; for we will be faced not with a disruption in the business model alone. For example, UBER is a business model disruption but not a scientific one. It runs on a computing device providing a service rendered by human driven cars; no leap forward in science.

This is, therefore, probably also the time as investors to take to reading science fiction. Some of the ludicrous seeming propositions could very well come true. The one I am rooting for is chimeras helping in generation of human neurons- thus enabling the reversal of brain damage; a notion that medical sciences so far posit to be permanent.


Note: The article that got me interested in on reading up on this topic is a great read in itself. Michael Hanlon’s The Golden Quarter, 03/12/2014