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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Euclids Elements

In 'Euclids Window' by Leonard Mlodinow we are taken through the history of geometry. It's not at all boring as some might assume. There is a history lesson on Alexandria, the leaders, and the library for example. It takes the imagination to a time where information was kept precariously on rolled up sheets of papyrus. Alexander the Great borrowed such texts from other leaders and didn't give them back! Imagine how much easier our own lives are now yet how much lazier that has made us. In the days before the 1000 year dark age, geek knowledge was in fashion. The math employed by the Egyptians was a commodity that the Greeks would travel by wooden ships to obtain. This made the information physically valuable to collectors of all things foreign. Think of those individuals as venture capitalists. They know something is valuable by they know not why. It was intellectually valuable to Euclid and the scientists he influenced. They knew why.

Euclids, 'Elements', his seminal work on Geometry, relied on the accumulated information on the subject. It is believed that most of the theorems were proven by other mathematicians. Perhaps the first sign of a powerful new scientific understanding would be a tall building or a way of having water available for farming. Egypt for example, had the pyramids. Someone capable of understanding the science and engineering had to grab some papyrus and go find out how they built them. It took Euclid many years to collect information from these kinds of writings and finally sit down to begin his work. He laid out his lifetime of interest in geometry, the things he felt were powerful in 13 rolls of papyrus.

This collection, 'Euclids Elements' has influenced people in ways beyond geometry. Bertrand Russell, for example, adopted the axiomatized deductive structures that Euclid's work introduced. (I stole "axiomatized deductive structures" from Wikipedia.) It is important to understand that sentence though. Axiom: A starting point of reasoning. Deductive reasoning links premises with conclusions. The structure of Elements is genius. 

Let's apply some "axiomatized deductive structure" to the Cargo Cults of biotechnology. There is much that we have learned since 1980 regarding the life sciences. As far as biotechnology and medical science are concerned however, we have created a huge steaming pile of information. It is not easy to find the starting point of much of the research then follow it logically to the conclusions that have been set in stone. I say "set in stone" because that is how biotechnology science begins. Let's look again at On-Q-ity. 

A group of investors will put money up to advance a science/technology towards a profitable healthcare product or service. On-Q-ity diagnosed cancer using biomarkers. After the money is in place PhDs are hired to instruct bachelor degreed people on how to "prove" the science and technology are useful. The conclusions are set in stone. Now imagine the new hires finding out that the science/technology isn't panning out as published? It doesn't work the way Bruce Booth and co-workers believed. Why did the investors believe that it worked? 

It is in this area, where the people with power run into trouble with the real boss of us all. Science doesn't care about a Venture Capitalists hopes and dreams. This area, science, is where the poor bastards with new PhDs and bachelor degrees have to work. It is where I worked and one day had to start this blog to deal with the insanity. Where a man who lived around 300 BC was once able to accumulate knowledge and put it down for people to learn from for over two millennia, we have arrived at a place where science is taken as a secondary function of a science based endeavor. The analysis of Bruce Booth on why On-Q-ity failed was an "Elements" of its own. It offered up the view from Cargo Cult leadership on what matters. The reasons for jumping in were not scientific. The reasons for failing were. 

Will this simple message ever make its way to the world? Science matters.

One axiom from my own axiomatized deductive structure before I end. Biotechnology in the pharmaceutical industry is plagued by unsubstantiated (non-reproduced) published research. At the core of both the bad science and the bad investment is the desire for money and power. A career, a new car, a busy schedule for speaking engagements... The signs of a true success. They are all very nice but only a true scientist would shun them all if it meant being a bullshitter. Perhaps among the ranks of our janitors and farmers are the scientific sages of our modern world. Our brightest minds are lying dormant until the day comes when pure thought returns to fashion. 

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