Hello world!

Yes, this is how WordPress titles your first post anyway. But I thought “Hello world!”, the first command that people commonly learn when picking up a programming language, was an apt intro for a blog that wants to look at science, technology, and how society uses and understands these things.

Why call it “nontrivialproblems”?  Well, I did want there to be a space between “trivial” and “problems”, but that’s what I get for making a blog before understanding how to customize a theme.  But more seriously, “nontrivial” is a term that carries a lot of weight in science, math, and engineering.  The “trivial solution” to a calculation is the solution where all terms are zero.  So, yeah, that probably leads to a mathematically true answer for many equations, but it’s not really interesting from a theoretical or practical point of view.  But trivial  also goes beyond that.  Something immediately obvious or deductible from a proof or theorem can be considered “trivial”. Richard Feynman once joked that mathematicians consider any theorem “trivial” once it has a proof.

So what is nontrivial? The stuff we don’t really understand. String theory is nontrivial, in both a mathematical and cultural sense. Predicting weather. Epigenetics and proteomics can be considered nontrivial.  Any area where we still don’t understand a lot of the rules that govern systems is “nontrivial”.

There’s a flip side to that understanding of nontrivial work, though.  A lot of science and engineering work that isn’t at the cutting edge of theory is considered “trivial” by some researchers.  The thing is, a lot of this work is also the work that’s about ready to hit the real world and affect lay people’s lives.  How carbon nanotubes grow is pretty well-settled, and we can make lots of cool devices with them (computer transistors, low-resistance wires, drug delivery systems, and more), but we still haven’t found a way to get most of these technologies efficiently to market. We have drugs for West Nile and malaria, but not ways to make them cheap enough to prevent outbreaks in developing countries.

Feynman said, “No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.” And so that’s what we’ll be working with.  Whether we’re looking at particle physicists finding the Higgs boson, chemists trying to understand the large-scale order of water molecules, or an engineer hoping to crank out a few more watts from a solar cell, it’s all fascinating in its own way.


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