matt (hbergeronx) wrote,

on invention and discovery

What's the difference between invention and discovery?

I'm currently meditating on two parallel publication streams. The first one is around the author Lee Cronin and the second is around Bartosz Grzybowski.

Lee has tremendous share of mind currently; his TED talk has generated a lot of front page news. Googling leads you to about 10^6 pages. Bartosz, on the other hand, only has about 10^4 pages.

Why highlight these? Why should you care?

Lee has applied the makerbot mentality to chemical synthesis, discovering that if you print plastic reaction vessels, you can perform synthetic chemistry in them. This has inspired an upswelling of ideas, including a future where drugs can be "printed" (i.e. the same way a color printer can "print" money) on demand. On the other hand, Bartosz has "invented" a new way of modeling chemical reactions, applying graph theory to determine the best/cheapest route to a particular compound.

I've highlighted two words which rightfully, you could easily swap. Bartosz did not invent graph theory anymore than Lee has invented the makerbot. Looking at patents, though, Lee clearly has seen through the eyes of an inventor, with 3 patents, whereas Bartosz does not appear to have any.

I would argue, however, that Lee has not actually invented anything new- merely, he has planted a flag, discovering a new continent of possibility without any real practical use. Bartosz, on the other hand, is drilling down into the world of genuine invention- he has made something new, has "new eyes" with the view of a graph theorist. His technique, despite probably not being patentable, begins to reach into the area of solving how to determine a path to any given compound with any number of starting materials and choosing any given set of optimizing parameters.

Pair these two, and you have a very real breakthrough in technology. What rankles, though, is the amount of attention given to one, because it is perhaps easier to understand, when the real interesting innovation is occurring elsewhere. When you think about any given piece of technology, do you think about the object, or do you think about what it is doing under the surface? Do you think about the Terminator, or the software programming it? Do you think about the needle, or the contents of the syringe? Do you think about the computer box, or the software it runs?

Focus, for a minute, on that last question. Do you work on "the computer", or do you work on "Microsoft Word"? Do you "get on the internet", or do you open "Safari"? Depending on context, some of these things may seem like synonyms, even though they are not, and you can easily confuse the map and the territory when attempting to think semantically, ontologically.

Readers of this, if they are familiar with baking, know that flour + water + yeast = bread is a terrible simplification, so much so that baking is often called an "art" rather than a science. When mass producing bread, having a process that is "in control" is very important, such that you can produce a uniform product, that one loaf of bread sold to one customer is not essentially different than an "equivalent" one sold to another customer, that the product is "fair" to all parties. Think about the sales experience- if you have one sweaty customer poring over the loaves to select the "best" one of the bunch, particularly if the baked good is reasonably "artisanal", the next customer in line suffers a set of coincidental disadvantages due to being "next in line".

There's a set of hidden privileges in artisanal work that has always been disturbing to me, but that's not the main point I'm trying to get to. Both Lee's and Bartosz's work will have to come together at some future time to be truly revolutionary work. The tool, and how it is used, are both essential components. Also, being able to print a "chemical" on demand, even if it is at 100% yield, must be separated from the various poisons it is manufactured in. Or does it?

We accept that our bodies produce all sorts of chemicals with varying effects and side effects. We have a burst of adrenaline, and deal with the upset stomach and withdrawal later. We run like hell, and deal with the lactic acid later. Every baker knows that a+b+c=d is a horrible simplification that does not get at the truth underneath; and "mold", "shape", and "burned" are not anywhere on the equation chart yet mater a lot to the aesthetics. I can imagine a "methamphetamine" printer, and there are many customers who would not care about the presence of tiny impurities that might halt a commercial pharmaceutical in its tracks. When do we start caring about the line, and why? Don't just answer that question from your personal perspective, think of all the possible perspectives, and where there might be an exception to any rule you mich devise. Consider all of the things you put in your mouth, both "organic, whole foods" and not, over the course of a day. Do you really understand them? Who are you trusting when you don't?

So, to conclude- what is the difference between invention, and discovery, taking all that into consideration? What is art, and what is science? And when do we choose to celebrate "something new", or begin to worry about the future?

Tags: meta, philosophy, science

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