Fri 21 Sep 2007
In 1905, from his small cubicle in a patent office in Zurich, Albert Einstein issues four papers that forever change our understanding of theoretical physics and the functioning of the cosmos. In the same year, Henri Matisse launches an exhibition of garish colours that shocks Paris and spurs Pablo Picasso to move into cubism. Meanwhile, sent by the Royal Geographic Society, Robert Falcon Scott sets off to explore the most remote and formidable corner of the planet – Antarctica.
It was called a “miracle year;” but in many ways, these world-altering feats did not happen miraculously, but as part of a pattern that has been repeated throughout modern history.
In the early 16th century, Michelangelo finishes the Sistine Chapel, and within two years Copernicus publishes his Little Commentary that redefines the Earth’s place in the universe (and later earns him an ex-communication from the Pope). A century and a half later, Isaac Newton describes the theory of gravity in his Principia by explaining why an apple falls on his head rather than upwards. At the same time, John Locke sets the stage for a secular society through his musings on “the nature of man in nature.”
Almost a hundred years later, the radical ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire – that common men (but not yet women) can actually govern themselves – provides the kindling that ignites the American and French revolutions, at the same time as astronomers are searching the galaxy for the eighth planet, Uranus.
Typically, modern civilization has made its greatest leaps forward after a fallow period in which strict orthodoxy stifled inquiry or contrary thinking and behaviour. Out of these dark periods – and often in response to the repression they imposed – there then occurred an explosion of asking what before had been considered unanswerable or forbidden questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? Is man’s nature essentially good or evil? What is the purpose of life?
Even a cursory examination of history suggests that it is the very act of asking such questions that produces a flurry of creativity and discovery that expands our understanding in philosophical, scientific and cultural realms.
Today, we rarely engage in serious public debate about the great epistemological questions of our time. Yet with environmental degradation, widening disparities of income and life chances within the modern and developing world, globalization, and racial, ethnic and religious tensions, we know that the human race faces as many great challenges, threats and opportunities today as at any time in our history.
In a more practical way, we also know the global economic balance of power is shifting. Today, China graduates more engineers than the United States and there are now more software developers in Bangalore, India, than in Silicon Valley.
Roger Martin’s Task Force on Competitiveness, Productivity and Economic Progress has documented the fact that Canada suffers a “productivity gap” compared to the United States that costs every family in Ontario alone the equivalent of $8,400 per year in disposable income. The results of the years-long Canada Project, undertaken by the Conference Board of Canada, have similarly chronicled our national decline in the main measures of prosperity.
Taken together, the evidence suggests we have very few reasons to be complacent. Yet when we read our daily newspaper or listen to debates in our legislatures, where is the kind of questioning that history tells us is the antecedent of the next leap forward in discovery and in the advancement of civilization?
While we might not hear these questions being discussed and debated, it does not mean they are going unasked.
For 25 years, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research has funded and co-ordinated research teams of physical, behavioural and social scientists who ask – and answer – the great questions of our time.
In the past year alone, CIFAR researchers have participated in major discoveries in the fields of quantum materials, genetics, socioeconomics and planetary evolution. Louis Taillefer’s group is exploring the limits of superconductivity and discovering it may be possible, someday, using conductors that will operate at room temperature, to levitate trains or develop magnetic devices that can create previously unseen medical images. A team headed by Jerry Mitrovica has offered hard evidence for the existence of liquid water on Mars more than two billion years ago. Led by Steve Scherer, a consortium of scientists from 19 countries has pinpointed new genetic links that may predispose children to autism. John Helliwell’s coterie has asked – and possibly answered – one of the most perplexing questions of all: What makes people happy?
Now, in celebration of this quarter-century of research achievements, CIFAR is embarking on a series of public meetings across the country to start a conversation with Canadians about the next big questions of the 21st century.
While much of the groundbreaking exploration initiated by CIFAR researchers will produce applications that can be directed towards solving society’s major ills, not all will produce obvious practical solutions. In the context of history – and given the nature of scientific investigation – that hardly matters.
Einstein could not have unlocked the clue to his general theory of relativity without the work of 19th-century astronomers on the orbits of the plan-ets. Astronomers looked into the heavens in a different way because of the principles of physical attraction that Newton put forward a hundred years previously. And Newton would not have even been allowed to publish research that offended the orthodoxy of his time had it not been for the courage of scientists who had challenged conventions before him.
Our knowledge of our universe, world and bodies has been gained cumulatively, with new hypotheses flowing from past discoveries. And while scientific discovery has already led to the great prosperity and cultural richness we enjoy today in the Western world, it will only increase in importance in the future, as we attempt to extend that prosperity to the poorest and to save a planet that may be succumbing from the unintended consequences of other scientific endeavours that we have yet to correct.
Thanks to the pioneering work of researchers in related disciplines like Richard Florida and Michael Porter, we know much about the keys required to unlock prosperity, competitiveness and innovation.
Florida , for example, argues that the fundamental ingredient of innovation rests not with investment in machinery, taxation levels or even technology, but with people – prosperity follows innovation and innovation is a function, pure and simple, of the calibre and variety of talent assigned to a task.
Yet in this critical aspect of development, Canada is lagging behind. Today we produce only one-half of the MA and one-quarter of the PhD graduates that the U.S. graduates, on a per capita basis. We also have a poor record of commercializing scientific research, in no small measure because our business community has an undernourished relationship with our applied research centres and with advanced research organizations, such as CIFAR.
We know that talent congregates where talent is – that the best and brightest will gravitate to centres of excellence to collaborate and be stimulated by peers. In this respect, CIFAR represents a cornerstone in Canada’s research and innovation communities, by enabling the best and brightest Canadian minds to conduct world-leading research from within our borders in collaboration with elite thinkers from around the globe.
We have the opportunity to experience “miracle years” in the 21st century. But it will only happen if media, business and political leaders support those who dare to ask big questions.