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What are examples of perennial discoveries?

by Mati_Roy1 min read9th May 20209 comments


World Modeling
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Quotes are from a private mailing list I'm part of. I asked the author if they wanted acknowledgement; I'll update if so.

Definition of "perennial discoveries": "These are science or engineering 'breakthroughs' that get announced in the press over and over and over, yet almost always fail to reach large-scale commercial use (the failure often not being reported)."

Motivation for asking: "I think it would be significantly easier to make sense of the world if there were a convenient, well-known list of 'perennial discoveries'. [...] A story on the list could be safely assumed to be unimportant, at least without much more information. Conversely, a story not on the list could be much more important than it might initially seem."

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7 Answers

Any area that involves a tradeoff between 3 or more parameters will perenially have "breakthroughs" that fail to mention that the 3x performance on one parameter is balanced by terrible performance on the others.

Research departments use publicity to help with legitimacy and thus grants though. Ra often supports these sorts of miniature industries of fraud.

From the mailing list, also from 2018-07-23:

Batteries, and the concept of perennial discoveries itself

Another weekly favorite is new battery chemistries, here are some recent ones:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5836015/Could-solar-energy-cheaper-fossil-fuels-new-battery-make-technology-95-cheaper.html https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/solid-electrolyte-boosts-liquid-metal-battery-/3009231.article https://www.inc.com/magazine/201808/steve-goldberg/fisker-automotive-solid-state-battery.html https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/07/180719165019.htm

A lot of these at least sound plausible, but you also get delightfully bizarre ones like this ABC article. (Charging an iPhone battery in under a second, no matter how the battery works, would require a current of around 10,000 amperes at 5 volts.)


Despite all of these new ideas, the battery industry remains dominated by economies of scale in lithium-ion manufacturing:


And this "discovery", too, has been around for many decades now:

"The storage battery is, in my opinion, a catchpenny, a sensation, a mechanism for swindling the public by stock companies. The storage battery is one of those peculiar things which appeals to the imagination, and no more perfect thing could be desired by stock swindlers than that very selfsame thing. ... Just as soon as a man gets working on the secondary [rechargeable] battery it brings out his latent capacity for lying." - Thomas Edison, 1883 (http://www.its.caltech.edu/~matsci/btf/EdisonText.html)

Every year there's a handful of new "flying cars" or other vehicles that promise to make personal flight popular, but nothing ever comes of it.

This one doesn't quite fit the category, as it's social norm and not hard tech, but there's some reported "new observation about the new generation" that are made over and over.

For example, the Time Magazine has an edition about "the me generation" from 1976, as well as one from 2013.

"Shorter attention span" is also one I see often through history. Although it could really just be a trend where it's getting shorter and shorter. For example, in 1983, Mike Darwin was complaining that now "all must be compressed to fit in the thirty minute world", and I was surprised by how long this was for a complaint given how much content of only a couple minutes there is on YouTube now. And with the new "story" format, this could move to seconds.

For more about this general idea, I recommend VSauce's Juvenoia video.

Also related: "The old ideal of Manhood has grown obsolete, and the new is still invisible to us, and we grope after it in darkness, one clutching this phantom, another that; Werterism, Byronism, even Brummelism, each has its day." -Thomas Carlyle (Scottish philosopher), in 1831 (h/t Deniz Calisal)

See also this XKCD about "The Pace of Modern Life": https://xkcd.com/1227/

From the mailing list, also from 2018-07-23

Cancer treatments

Drugs or other treatments that cure cancer (most often, really an artificial model of cancer) in mice. Here are some prominent examples from the last few weeks:




There is nothing special about July 2018, and searching any other month would turn up a set of similar stories. Indeed, this "discovery" has been reported on for over a hundred years now:


Special diets to prevent cancer are in the same boat:


purported “cures” for autism, depression, anxiety, and ADHD have been crossing my newsfeed practically every day for decades now, without any significant practical advancement for any of those.

"Automatic programming".