Thursday, 9 February 2012

Blue-sky research

The better part of my working life has been spent in the wonderful world of academic research. Over those years I noticed something of a trend: the results of all our investigations seemed to be becoming ever more predictable. It got to the point where, if a project set out to look for something, it was expected to find it, and precisely that. To build something, and it was expected to build just that, and not be diverted by anything else equally fascinating that might be stumbled upon along the way. We applied for our grants, and in doing so we were expected to specify, with more and more precision as the years went by, exactly what the project being paid for was going to "deliver". We had to become more and more "efficient", and this process was leaving ever less room for us to do anything else.

We were, in other words, becoming more and more like an industry. Of course, industry is very useful, but it's not research, and there are already plenty of other people doing it. If you've got customers who want useful widgets (mobile phones, for example), and shareholders who want you to turn a profit, you can't afford to have your development team sitting looking out of the window all day thinking abstract but fascinating thoughts. But looking out of the window has its uses.

We were investigating the effect of the weather on radio waves. I was building a "model" based on past research coupled with what we ourselves were seeing on a long-distance radio link over the sea. The "model" had several parts, and one of these dealt with atmospheric turbulence.

It turns out that anyone who was anyone in the early days of research in atmospheric turbulence, was Russian. Meet Alexander Obukhov, Andrei Kolmogorov, and "V.I." (you only ever saw the initials) Tatarski, for example. I used to wonder what gave Russia the edge in these matters. Then one day when I was sitting number-crunching in the lab, it started to snow. Of course, I looked out of the window. All of a sudden the eddies and waves described by the very equations I was dealing with, could be seen, as the snowflakes traced them out. Suddenly it become easier to understand how the grand sweeps of the larger eddies were being diverted, by instability, into ever-smaller ones, until the gyrations reached the size of a large snowflake, at which point they just dissipate into heat.

In those pre-Gorbachev years it was a truth universally acknowledged that it always snows in Russia. And so, I used to wonder, when it came to understanding the dynamics of the atmosphere, was that part of what gave the Russians their edge? And if that sounds far-fetched, consider that (on the opposite side of the Cold War) the inspiration behind one of the pioneering researchers in the field of Chaos Theory, was noticing the shapes of clouds while looking out of the window.

And who exactly was it who needed to know what all this weather would do to their radio waves? Why, the Telecommunications industry. Including, of course, the people who brought us mobile phones.

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