In an increasingly crowded field, scientists have come up with their own approaches to studying nature.
Some of them are based on research and observations, while others are based around theory and experiments.
But how to learn more about nature, or even what it’s like to live there, is an area where both science and technology are converging.
Science relies on observations to uncover the details of the natural worlds around us.
Technology is designed to solve the problem of understanding, with a clear goal in mind: to make us better at what we do.
For scientists, it’s all about making better use of our scarce computing resources.
“We’re building the infrastructure of our lives,” says James Burch, a scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle who studies how humans understand the natural environments around us, and how we use them to understand the world.
The first wave of scientific learning was built around observation.
As a young man, Burch was studying botany at the California Academy of Sciences in Pasadena, California.
“I saw how different the world looked,” he says.
“It was like seeing a giant, black hole in a night sky.
It looked like a giant black hole that you were going to go through.”
Burch says his fascination with space began in middle school, when he was mesmerized by the fact that, at one time, astronomers were studying the cosmos using telescopes in space, and that astronomers were making predictions about the stars and planets.
It wasn’t until college that he started to delve into the subject.
His interest in astronomy grew, and he studied astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, eventually landing a job as a postdoc there.
It was at MIT that Burch began to work with his former postdoc, Steven Novella, on an investigation into how human perception of the world might be affected by what he called the “sensory world hypothesis.”
“It turns out that if we look at the natural environment in an abstract way, we can’t see things that are different from what we normally see,” he recalls.
“So we have to make those differences known.”
As the 1960s drew to a close, Bada began to research and understand the way we view the natural, physical world around us in ways that had never been imagined before.
Burch’s research into the sensory world hypothesis began with a series of experiments that demonstrated that our perception of space, the world around and beyond us, can be influenced by the visual, auditory and tactile aspects of the environment.
“You can imagine a very simple system of sensory systems that is really quite powerful,” he tells me.
Bader Bader, a physicist at Stanford University in California, and Burch teamed up in 1977 to develop a visual perception model that could be applied to the physical world.
In a series a year later, Bader and Bader teamed up again to apply the model to the sensory environment, looking at the visual and auditory qualities of the physical environment.
The result was a system that was able to predict how well the sensory system was going to perform in a given environment.
“As a kid, I was mesmerised by the way the sensory worlds looked,” says Burch.
“If you think about it, we see these enormous, huge things that you can’t even imagine.”
Bader wanted to know how well we could accurately interpret the visual environment in a way that we could interpret the physical.
“At first, I tried to do some experiments in my laboratory to figure out if I could do better than just looking at objects in the room,” he explains.
“But I didn’t know how much better I could really do than I had done previously.
I knew it was going in the wrong direction. “
My training had been to do the simplest thing possible, to look at a lightbulb, to get a picture of the room, and to take a picture that was a few seconds long, then take that picture and put it on a screen.
I knew it was going in the wrong direction.
But that’s exactly what I was doing in my lab.
I just didn’t want to go wrong.”
In 1985, Bób and Bada collaborated with two other researchers to develop an experiment to test whether or not the sensory-world model was valid.
In the experiment, the two scientists would take pictures of a room filled with various objects.
One of the pictures would be taken when the room was illuminated by a light bulb.
Another picture would be a photograph of the same room with no light at all.
“The first picture was taken when a light was shining on the room.
It turned out to be a very good model,” Burch recalls.
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