Sensors: Accelerating The Pace Of Scientific Discovery

Behind every great scientific discovery is an instrument. From Galileo and his telescope to Arthur Compton and the cloud chamber, our most important discoveries are underpinned by device innovations that extend human senses and augment human cognition. This is a crucially important science news constant, because without new tools discovery would slow to a crawl. Want to predict the next big science surprise a decade from now? Look for the fastest-moving technologies in the present and ask what new tools they enable.

For the last half-century, digital technology has delivered the most powerful tools in the form of processors, networking, and sensors. Processing came first, providing the brains for space probes and the computational bulldozers needed for tackling computation-intensive research. Then with the advent of the Arpanet, the Internet, and the World Wide Web, networking became a powerful medium for accessing and sharing scientific knowledge—and connecting remotely to everything from supercomputers to telescopes.

But it is the third category—sensors, and an even-newer category of robust effectors that are poised to accelerate and utterly change research and discovery in the decades ahead.

First, we created our computers, then we networked them together, and now we are giving them sensory organs to observe—and manipulate—the physical world in the service of science. And thanks to the phenomenon described by Moore’s law, sensor cost/performance is racing ahead as rapidly as chip performance. Ask any amateur astronomer: for a few thousand dollars, they can purchase digital cameras that were beyond the reach of observatories a decade ago.

The entire genomics field owes its very existence and future to sensors. Craig Venter’s team became the first to decode the human genome in 2001 by leveraging computational power and sensor advances to create a radically new—and radically less expensive—sequencing process. Moreover, the cost of sequencing is already dropping more rapidly than the curve of Moore’s Law. Follow out the Carlson Curve (as the sequencing price/performance curve was dubbed by The Economist), and cost of sequencing a genome is likely to plummet below one dollar well before 2030. Meanwhile, the gene editing made possible by the CRISPR/Cas system is possible only because of ever more powerful and affordable sensors and effectors. Just imagine the science that is possible when sequencing a genome costs a dime and networked sequencing labs-on-a-chip are cheap enough to be tossed out and discarded like RFID tags.

Sensors and digital technology are also driving physics discovery. The heart of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider is the CMS detector, a 14,000-tonne assemblage of sensors and effectors that has been dubbed "science’s cathedral." Like a cathedral of old, it is served by nearly 4,000 people drawn from over forty countries, and it is so popular that a scientific journal just featured a color-in centerfold of the device in its year-end issue.

Sensors are also opening vast new windows on the cosmos. Thanks to the relentless advance of sensors and effectors in the form of adaptive optics, discovery of extrasolar planets moved from science fiction to commonplace with breathtaking speed. In the very near future, sensor advances will allow us to analyze exoplanetary atmospheres and look for civilizational signatures. The same trends will open new horizons for amateur astronomers, who will soon enjoy affordable technical means to match the Kepler spacecraft in planet-finding prowess. Sensors are thus as much about democratizing amateur science as the creation of ever more powerful instruments. The Kepler satellite imaged a field of 115 degrees, or a mere 0.25 percent of the sky. Planet-finding amateurs wielding digitally empowered backyard scopes could put a serious dent in the other 99.75 percent of the sky yet to be examined.

Another recent encounter between amateurs and sensors offers a powerful hint of what is to come. Once upon a time, comets were named after human discoverers, and amateurs hunted comets with such passion that more than one would-be comet hunter relocated their residence eastwards in order to get an observing jump on the competition. Now, comets have names like 285P/Linear because robotic systems are doing the discovering, and amateur comet hunting is in steep decline. Amateurs will find other things to do, (like search for planets) but it is hard not to feel a twinge of nostalgia for a lost time when that wispy apparition across the sky carried a romantic name like Hale-Bopp or Ikeya-Seki rather than C/2011-L4 PanStarrs.

This shift in cometary nomenclature hints at an even more dramatic sea change to come in the relationship between instrument and discoverer. Until now, the news has been of ever more powerful instruments created in the service of amplifying human-driven discovery. But just as machines today are better comet finders than humans, we are poised on the threshold of a time when machines do not merely amplify but displace the human researcher. When that happens, the biggest news of all will be when a machine wins a Nobel Prize alongside its human collaborators.