The Science of Haute Couture and the Fashion of Science

I want that gorgeous Chanel bag. I do!chanelpaperbag

Is there any science and logic behind it? Not from my side, but I suspect there is considerable science (and well Art) from Chanel.

Surely the fashion and designs sold to us through seductive advertising are not merely the unfettered, free-spirited, creative output of talented designers? I suspect there is plenty of science behind how trends change and new trends are introduced to the market.

Conversely I think the trends in Science follow fashions too.

What does that mean?

There are usually areas/approaches that attract the attention of policy-makers, grant-giving bodies, editors of journals and reviewers. And work done in these areas/approaches tends to attract more funding, gets published more easily, and receives more attention than less fashionable ones.

The advantages of such fashions include the channelling of resources into strategically important areas/approaches, their possible rapid development, potential return to the taxpayers, investors, industry, improvement for the public in products/services. With limited resources some parameters on priority areas/approaches are indispensable.

The disadvantage can be over-funding of some topics at the expense of other deserving options, neglect of promising potential developments, restricting creativity and diversity in thought.

Science is frustratingly enigmatic: we can’t always predict which seemingly obscure development or outlandish piece of research will lead to a fantastic new technology or product that changes our lives. Nor can we be sure that the hot area that many work on and that holds so much promise will eventually deliver the goods on schedule.

This fickle quality is what makes science so exciting to work in. You can’t really know what the work of today will create for tomorrow.

I take the example of Photonics (as this is my area of work, I feel more comfortable drawing from my not so vast experience): it has many applications and photonics is often an enabling technology in many other disciplines. In my view the current trend in Photonics is to largely focus on experimental work. Theoretical ideas that are proposed are sometimes regarded with a jaundiced eye in the peer review process: if you can’t or haven’t fabricated it (a prototype) or demonstrated it, reviewers and editors are hard to convince about the potential of the idea.

Yet the principle behind the laser (and its development by several researchers over the years) was published years before the first prototype was demonstrated. Today lasers are everywhere: in our printers, DVD reader/writers, we use them to cut machinery, to operate on patients… But would this wonderful idea have survived the peer review of today?

Another example I take is that of LHM/NIM (Left-Handed Materials or Negative Index Materials). The concept of negative refractive index was predicted by Veselago in the 1960s when no experimental verification of the concept was possible: fabrication of such structures was not feasible with the technology of the day and no known examples existed in the natural world. Yet the work was published and has since the 1990s led to a huge research effort globally. Everyone has heard of metamaterials! Whether these exotic materials will give us the breakthroughs that researchers expect remains to be seen.

And so I feel we need to encourage a more balanced perspective (and resource allocation) which does not lean too heavily in any one direction, lest we ignore incredible ideas that can transform science.

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