Is Science a Victim of its own Success?

By John Horgan

hogan These are trying times for truth-seekers. Scientists feel increasingly besieged by technophobes, animal-rights activists, religious fundamentalists, post-modern philosophers and stingy politicians. After decades of stupendous growth, funding for basic research has begun to decline.

Also, as science advances, it keeps imposing limits on its own power. Einstein's theory of special relativity prohibits the transmission of matter or even information at speeds faster than that of light. Quantum mechanics dictates that our knowledge of the microrealm will always be slightly blurred. Chaos theory confirms that even without quantum indeterminacy many phenomena would be impossible to predict, because minute influences can have have gigantic consequences. And evolutionary biology keeps reminding us that we are animals, designed by natural selection not for discovering deep truths of nature but for breeding.

All these limits will make the search for truth more difficult in years to come. But in my view, by far the greatest threat to science's future is its past success. Researchers have already mapped out the entire universe, ranging from the microrealm of quarks and electrons to the macrorealm of planets, stars and galaxies. Physicists have shown that all matter is ruled by a few basic forces.

Scientists have also stitched their knowledge into an impressive, if not terribly detailed, narrative of how we came to be. The universe exploded into existence 15 billion years ago, give or take five billion years, and is still expanding outwards. About 4.5 billion years ago, the detritus from an exploding star, a supernova, condensed into our solar system. Sometime during the next few hundred million years, single-celled microbes emerged on the earth. Prodded by natural selection, these primordial organisms diversified into an extraordinary array of more complex creatures, including Homo sapiens.

My guess is that this basic narrative that scientists have constructed from their knowledge, this modern myth of creation, will be as viable 100 or even 1,000 years from now as they are today. Why? Because it is true. Moreover, given how far science has already come, and given the physical, cognitive, social and economic limits constraining further research, science is unlikely to make any significant additions to the knowledge it has already generated. By science I mean not applied science but science at its purest and grandest, the primordial human quest to understand the universe and our place in it. Further research may yield no more great revelations or -revolutions but only incremental, diminishing returns.

The vast majority of scientists are content to fill in details of the great paradigms laid down by their predecessors. They try to show how a new high-temperature superconductor can be understood in quantum terms, or how a mutation in a particular stretch of DNA triggers breast cancer. But some scientists are much too ambitious and creative for merely "mopping up" after the pioneers (as the philosopher Thomas Kuhn, who died this past June, liked to put it). These overreachers want to transcend the received wisdom, to create revolutions in knowledge analogous to those triggered by Darwin's theory of evolution or by quantum mechanics.

For the most part these ambitious types have only one option: to pursue science in a speculative, non-empirical mode that I call ironic science. Ironic science resembles literary criticism or philosophy or theology in that it offers points of view, opinions, which are, at best, "interesting," and which provoke further comment. But ironic science does not converge on the truth.

The most obvious source of ironic science in this century is social science, which has given us such wonderfully provocative paradigms as Freudian psychoanalysis, Marxism and structuralism. But ironic hypotheses have cropped up in the so-called hard sciences as well. One striking specimen is superstring theory, which for more than a decade has been the leading contender for a unified theory of physics. Often called a "theory of everything," it posits that all the matter and energy in the universe and even space and time stem from infinitesimal, string-like particles wriggling in a hyperspace consisting of 10 (or more) dimensions.

Unfortunately, the microrealm that superstrings allegedly inhabit is completely inaccessible to human experimenters. A superstring is supposedly as small in comparison to a proton as a proton is in comparison to the solar system. Probing this realm directly would require an accelerator 1,000 light years around. This problem led the Nobel laureate Sheldon Glashow of Harvard University to compare superstring theorists to " medieval theologians."

Some optimists contend that these unconfirmed, far-fetched hypotheses are signs of science's vitality and boundless possibilities. I see them as signs of science's desperation. By far the most common objection to my end-of-science spiel is some variant of "That's what they thought 100 years ago." Implicit within this response is the following argument: As the 19th century wound down, physicists thought they knew everything. But then Einstein and other physicists discovered relativity and quantum mechanics, opening up vast new vistas for modern physics and other branches of science. Moral: anyone who predicts science is ending will surely turn out to be as short-sighted as those 19th-century physicists were. A similar anecdote alleges that in the 19th century a U.S. patent commissioner quit his job because he thought everything had been invented.

First of all, both of these stories are apocryphal. No American patent official ever quit his job because he thought everything had been invented. And physicists at the end of the last century were engaged in debating such profound issues as whether atoms really exist. The historian of science Stephen Brush of the University of Maryland has called the "Victorian calm" in physics a "myth."

Furthermore, the inductive logic underlying the that's-what-they-thought-at-the-end-of-the-last-century argument is also deeply flawed. Because science has advanced so rapidly over the past century or so, this logic suggests, it can and will continue to do so, possibly forever. But viewed from an historical perspective, the modern era of rapid scientific and technological progress appears to be not a permanent feature of reality but an aberration, a fluke, a product of a singular convergence of economic, political and intellectual factors.

"The age in which we live," the great Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once declared, "is the age in which we are discovering the fundamental laws of nature, and that day will never come again." Modern science, as far as it has come, has left many deep questions unanswered. But the questions tend to be ones that will probably never be definitively answered, given the limits of human science. How, exactly, was the universe created? Could our universe be just one of an infinite number of universes? Why is there something rather than nothing?

These are the kinds of unanswerable questions that give rise to superstring theory and other ironic theories. I do not mean to imply that ironic science has no value. At its best, ironic science, like great literature or art or philosophy, can ensure that we retain our sense of wonder before the mystery of the universe. But ironic science cannot give us the truth.

John Horgan is a senior writer at Scientific American and author of The End of Science, published this year by Addison-Wesley.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin

December 1996 (Volume 5, Number 11)

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Two New APS Officers Begin Tenures
Data Storage, New Laser Advances Featured at ILS-XII Meeting
APS Members Share 1996 Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry
Strangelet Searches, Spin Effects, QCD Field Theory Highlight 1996 DNP Meeting
APS Council Establishes Task Force on Career Development
OSTP Releases Report on Reducing Excess Plutonium Stockpiles
Improbable Researchers Gather for 1997 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony
In Brief
APS Views
The Research Environment in a Global Economy
Practicing Civic Science: Notes From the Field
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