The Instrument Makers


May 8, 2015

When we think about how great theories are built, one pattern seems to pop up repeatedly: breakthroughs are preceded by the insight into one (n=1) insight. The key observation of an anomaly that disabused us of a false assumption leads us to a far deeper causal understanding.

I’ll illustrate with a simple history of astronomy. For millennia, the theory of astronomy was informed by data provided by our eyes. The human eye could observe celestial objects with great acuity, and with great patience and record keeping the recognition of patterns in movements allowed the building of a vast database of predictions about the universe. We see this in many societies around the world: from Nordic seafaring navigators to Mayan calendars to Greek scholars. They all built predictive models and associated mythologies around the observable night sky.

These models included a construct called the calendar, the horoscope, navigation charts and even rare event predictors such as eclipses. Computing devices were even built to allow the calculation of these events by laypersons rather than a priestly class.

Our eyes remained the observational instruments underpinning all these theories. The world (and otherworld) view was informed and repeatably tested through eyesight. It wasn’t until the technology of lenses was developed (initially for a completely different purpose) that new instruments could be used to augment the eye.

These telescopes (and their brethren, the microscopes) changed many theories profoundly. The information that optical telescopes could convey allowed the observation of anomalies (e.g. planets) which changed the earth-centric view of the universe which, in turn, challenged much of the balance of power in society.

As much as we applaud the developer of the theory, we should give as much credit to the makers of the instruments that allowed the observations to take place. The optical telescope was followed by the spectrometer and the radio telescope (again, both were born to solve different problems) which changed astronomy again and again.

So when we look at the physical sciences, we see the patterns of instrumentation innovation leading to theory innovations. Today physics depends on increasingly more expensive instruments like the Large Hadron Collider to test theories. Indeed, what makes “Big Science” big is the expenditure on instruments. (In contrast, and I’m sure in consternation, mathematics remains relatively cheap.)

But when we look at the social sciences, do we see patterns of instrument innovation? What are the instruments social scientists use to develop their theories?

The obvious answers are statistics, big (and bigger) data correlation, various polling and other methods of data collection. These data instruments have formed the bedrock of the social sciences as much as our eyes formed the foundation of astronomy. They have built a corpus of theories about how society works that currently drives most of the decisions on the allocation of shared resources. A lot is riding on this data.

But can we do better? Can we devise instruments that allow us to see patterns beyond the correlative? Can we take steps orthogonal to those toward more data to see patterns that unlock completely new social theories? Can we find the anomalies of n=1 data that completely change the perspective?

We think we can and we take it as our mission.