Phenomena-based cycles

Phenomena-based cycles

If you think of basic building blocks as

  1. Theorizing around phenomena (why it happens)
  2. Observing phenomena (seeing it happens)
  3. Exploiting phenomena (using it to do something useful)
    (Phenomena are things that happen without a human consciously making them happen)

There are actually several ways that things happen.

A couple of notes

  • The end of one “chain” is almost always the beginning of another, so a big picture would show a loop back to the original block.
  • For a given phenomena, there are often multiple chains running in parallel: throughout history people have observed already-theorized phenomena without any knowledge of the theory. The discovery of the cosmic microwave background is a perfect example of this.
  • “Exploiting” is itself a multistep process with its own loops. The Technology readiness level - TRL system gets at this fact and still ignores the dispersion aspect of technology that might be necessary before it can be used sufficiently to lead to an observation or theory. However, an observation or theory can also come from an incomplete exploitation.

  • Theory -> Observation -> Exploitation
    This is the Karl PopperIan cycle that is also encoded in the idea of basic-applied research. It is the broad outline of how the Manhattan project worked - theory predicted that a critical mass of fissile material should explode, informing experiments where that was observed, leading to the exploitation of that phenomenon by building the bomb. The explosive, era-defining example of this mode embedded it in many minds.

  • Observation -> Exploitation -> Theory
    This is arguably how innovation has happened throughout most of history. “Hey, when I mix this special rock with this other special rock and water it turns into concrete!” Yes, that’s because those rocks have just the right mix of calcium, silicon, aluminum, iron, and other ingredients. “Huh, when I stir wheat-water with this special stick, it turns into beer!” Yes, that’s because that stick is maintaining a colony of yeast - tiny microorganisms that turn the sugars from the wheat into alcohol.
  • Exploitation -> Observation -> Theory
    This is the “technology-based tool building” mode of phenomena discovery. Scanning electron microscopes or X-ray crystallography are great examples of this. Both take advantage of new phenomena to observe previously unobservable phenomena that can then be theorized around. Note how many Nobel prizes have been awarded for creating new observation tools.
  • Theory -> Observation -> Theory
    This is the Thomas Kuhnsian cycle from Cycles of Invention and Discovery: someone observes something that doesn’t fit with a previous theory which then forces an update to the theory. Galileo is the classic example here. Note that arguably Galileo is also an example of a type #3 chain because he was able to make the observation because of the new ability to exploit the lensing phenomena of polished and shaped glass. It’s rare that someone goes into an observation completely theory-free.
  • Exploitation -> Observation -> Exploitation
    This is basically just Learning by doing. Like #2 this is probably one of the most common modes and often operates a bunch of little loops parallel to #2 until theory comes along. It’s super common even in the 20th/21st century - the early days of rocketry were mostly trial and error.
  • Exploitation -> Exploitation
    Often, a new way to exploit a phenomenon becomes unlocked just by crossing some ability threshold. For example the ability to do deep learning was unlocked mostly by data and compute reaching a threshold - all of which are arguably exploiting the semiconductor phenomena. However because phenomena and thus paradigms are fractal (Phenomena are things that happen without a human consciously making them happen) this mode can look like a capability advance within a paradigm enabling another capability advance within that paradigm or a capability advance in one paradigm enabling a capability advance in another paradigm.
  • Theory -> Theory
    Theory can also be built off of the back of other theories. This chain is a two-sided sword. On the one hand, it can enable great logical leaps to escape local equilibria. On the other hand, it can lead to entire fields becoming unmoored from reality. I will not name them here. Decoupling from market discipline is like cave diving.

I didn’t realize until after writing this that theory doesn’t ever seem to lead directly to exploitation. The closest might actually be in computer science - especially cryptography where there is a very small gap between theory and reality.

These cycles are how different axes of research affect each other. Research has many orthogonal and non orthogonal classification axes

Through this lens, I worry that thanks to specialization-driving forces in the 21st century (Competition and lack of slack creates specialization) we are putting more and more effort into chain #6 and #7, without actually completing any loops. Uncompleted loops could absolutely lead to Stagnation. If this narrative is the case, we need to start asking ‘how can these phenomena we’re exploiting lead to better observations or theories about different phenomena?’ Phenomena-based cycles are stuck

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