I was chatting with Alex Wolf, vice president
of ACM, at an Executive Committee meeting
that took place shortly after the spectacular
announcement of the confirmation of
post-Big Bang inflationary expansion
of the Universe—a notion that had
been posited in 1980 by Alan Guth.
Alex pointed out that scientific measurement and confirmation of the theory took 34 years to materialize. His
observation struck a chord. Too often
one gets the impression of tacit expectation that scientific research has to
produce results within some predictable time or it is not useful or relevant.
I was immediately reminded of two
other predictions that took some time
to confirm. The most recent before the
inflation result was the discovery of the
Higgs boson that propagates the Higgs
Field, conferring mass upon subatomic particles. Peter Higgs had predicted
the existence of this particle in 1964.
Nearly 50 years later, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN was able to measure clear evidence of the existence of
a massive particle matching the Higgs
boson’s anticipated characteristics.
The other is the discovery of the
pi muon or pion. From Wikipedia
( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pion) we
learn: “Theoretical work by Hideki
Yukawa in 1935 had predicted the
existence of mesons as the carrier
particles of the strong nuclear force.
From the range of the strong nuclear
force (inferred from the radius of the
atomic nucleus, Yukawa predicted
the existence of a particle having a
mass of about 100MeV. Initially af-
ter its discovery in 1936, the muon
(initially called the “mu meson”) was
thought to be this particle, since it
has a mass of 106 MeV. However, later
particle physics experiments showed
that the muon did not participate in
the strong nuclear interaction.
“In 1947, the first true mesons, the
charged pions, were found by the col-
laboration of Cecil Powell, César Lattes,
Giuseppe Occhialini et al., at the Univer-
sity of Bristol, in England. Since the ad-
vent of particle accelerators had not yet
come, high-energy subatomic particles
were only obtainable from atmospheric
cosmic rays. Photographic emulsions,
which used the gelatin-silver process,
were placed for long periods of time
in sites located at high altitude moun-
tains, first at Pic du Midi de Bigorre in
the Pyrenees, and later at Chacaltaya in
the Andes Mountains, where they were
impacted by cosmic rays.”
These are by no means the only ex-
amples of the delay between theoretical
prediction and practical discovery, but
they serve to illustrate the point that
it may take some time to validate the
results of theoretical research. In some
cases, the delay results from the lack of
instruments to discover corroborating
measurements. I am reminded of the
so-called Ice Cubea experiment in Ant-
arctica funded by the National Science
Foundation. It required an enormous
effort to construct the 5,000 sensors
buried deep in the ice and designed
to detect powerful cosmic ray neutri-
nos originating in galactic and extra-
galactic supernovae while ignoring low
power solar neutrinos. This work was
rewarded by the detection of more than
two dozen extremely energetic neutri-
nos, the most powerful of which were
named after Sesame Street characters:
Bert, Ernie, and Big Bird. (Even serious
scientists have a sense of humor!)
The endless pas de deux between
theory and practice is well illustrated
by these examples. In some cases,
measurement corroborates theory
and in others it contradicts the theory.
Once other possible sources of measurement error are discarded, scientists may be forced to alter theory to
explain measurement. This is the essence of scientific principle: corroboration of theory with measurement,
duplication of results by others to
confirm observations, and revision of
theory to explain measurement. That
these confirmations or refutations
may take decades to achieve is part of
the long-term process of scientific investigation. As debates about the utility of scientific research ensue during
annual budget-setting exercises, we
would do well to remember the story of
the Higgs boson, the pi muon, and the
cosmic background measurements
confirming inflationary expansion after the Big Bang. Sometimes it takes
time, patience, and a lot of effort to establish and confirm scientific theory.
It is worth the wait and the expense.
Vinton G. Cerf, ACM PRESIDENT
Copyright held by Author.
Allow me to tell you of an extraordinary
application developed by ACM’s IS Department head Wayne Graves and his team.
This versatile new app is designed to provide
users with a wide range of information
about ACM conferences and direct access
to DL content. The richness and flexibility
of the app must be seen to be appreciated.
Android: http://bit.ly/1psCu Wi
Windows coming soon!
Takes Some Time!
DOI: 10.1145/2597759 Vinton G. Cerf