Sunday, July 5, 2009

The 'end of science' my ass

The reports of the death of science have been greatly exaggerated.

Another effort in the 'science has come to an end' series recently appeared in the Guardian with Ehsan Masood's article, "Are We Witnessing the End of Science?" Masood's concern has more do to with how science is conducted today than a fear that the well has run dry -- though he does suggest that 'radical' advances in physics and biology are likely at an end barring some kind of technological breakthrough (e.g. Hadron Collider data).

Specifically, Masood believes that we are seeing fewer revolutions in science because of the professional way in which modern science is organized. "It takes a lot of courage to challenge conventionally accepted views," he writes, "and it needs a certain amount of stamina to constantly battle those who want to protect the status quo. Mavericks do not do well in large organisations, which is what some scientific fields have become."

While there may be some truth to Masood's assertion that there are systemic problems, the suggestion that such challenges will forever stifle potential scientific breakthroughs is overstated. These are merely short term problems. Science isn't going to stop just because of the conservatism that's supposedly embedded in the institutions that Masood is talking about.

As for the issue that scientific progress is at an end because there's nothing left to uncover, that's an equally problematic claim. This is a perspective that's been promoted by such thinkers as John Horgan, author of the book, The End Of Science: Facing The Limits Of Knowledge In The Twilight Of The Scientific Age.

While I agree that the rate of paradigmatic scientific breakthroughs is slowing down, I firmly believe that there's still plenty of meaningful science to be done.

Accelerating technological change, decelerating scientific advance

A number of years ago Michael Vassar, who is now the President of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and I tackled this question. We suspected that, despite the rapid pace of technological progress, that breakthroughs in science were actually slowing down. To test the theory we created a list of humanity's most important scientific breakthroughs and noted how much time had elapsed since each development:
  • Advent of religion as primitive metaphysics (100,000 to 45,000 years ago)
  • Meditation Pantojoli, Forest Vedas (1000 BC)
  • Advent of science in Ancient Greece (350 BC)
  • Arabic Mathematics (800 AD)
  • Revival of Ptolemaic Astronomy (early 1500s)
  • Copernican Astronomy/Heliocentrism (1543)
  • Advent of Mechanistic Dynamics (17th century)
  • Statistics & Probability Bayes, Pascal, Fermat, etc. (17th century)
  • Calculus Huygens, Newton & Leibniz (late 17th century)
  • Newtonian Dynamics (1680s)
  • Newtonian Optics (1680s)
  • Idea of Progress/Enlightenment (18th century)
  • Thermodynamics (early 19th century)
  • Biochemistry (early 19th century)
  • Non-Euclidean Geometry Lobachevsky, Bolyai, Gauss, Riemann, etc. (early 19th century)
  • Electro-Magnetic Induction Faraday (1821)
  • Natural Selection Darwin (1858)
  • Geological Uniformitarianism (mid to late 19th century)
  • Mendelian Inheritance (1866)
  • Maxwell's Equations (1884)
  • Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements (mid to late 19th century)
  • Microeconomics (mid to late 19th century)
  • Germ Theory of Disease Pasteur (late 19th century)
  • Advent of Speculative Science Fiction, Futurology (late 19th century)
  • Unification of Chemistry and Physics (late 19th, early 20th century)
  • Experimental Psychology (early 20th century)
  • Undecidability (early 20th century)
  • Einsteinian Relativity (1905)
  • Quantum Physics (1909) Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger
  • Universal Computing Turing, Gödel, Hilbert (1928)
  • Advent of Cosmology (early to mid 20th century)
  • Idea of force carrier Einstein, Bose, Higgs (mid 20th century)
  • Standard Model of Particle Physics (mid to late 20th century)
  • Neo-Darwinian synthesis with Mendelian Genetics Williams, Dawkins, etc. (mid to late 20th century)
  • Chaos Theory or Complex Systems Theory (1960s)
  • Memetics/Semiotics Dawkins, Eco (1970s)
  • Sociobiology Wilson (1970s)
Based on this list we concluded that science had experienced a 'golden age' of sorts from the 17th through to the 19th century, and that major breakthroughs were becoming less and less frequent.

So what does that mean moving forward? As already mentioned, I suspect that the 'earth shattering' breakthroughs may be a thing of the past, though that cannot be guaranteed. Past successes may be no guarantee of future gain, but it can also be argued that the current slowdown is no guarantee that there won't be future scientific black swans.

The ongoing interplay of science and technology

The interplay between science and technological progress is a very intimate one: some of the greatest breakthroughs in science arrived alongside the introduction of new technological devices.

Take modern astronomy, for example, which was ignited by the invention of the telescope. Similarly, microbiology's emergence coincided with the introduction of the microscope. There are many other examples, including conceptual ones; it's no coincidence that the human body started to be perceived as machine-like during the industrial revolution, or that the brain started to be seen as a type of computer once information technologies took off.

It's quite possible that future advances will once again inspire the sciences. This will unlikely happen in the well-established or more traditional disciplines like astronomy, biology or chemistry. Instead, future breakthroughs will happen in the fuzzy and specialized areas that currently confound science.

The greatest beneficiary of such breakthroughs will undoubtedly be in neuroscience -- or what some observers still regard as the 'philosophy of mind' on account of its slow progress. There is still plenty of mysterious space to work in to keep scientists busy for the foreseeable future (consciousness, qualia and subjectivity in particular). And very closely related to this is the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence theory. I very much anticipate that these two fields will inform and inspire each other over the coming decades.

Another important field will be quantum computation. This is actually a potential game-changer; quantum computers would likely change the way we go about information processing and perhaps even daily life itself. If theory holds, quantum computers will eventually reach the point of instantaneous problem-solving for almost all computational problems. That's significant.

There's also the issue of converging sciences. Take molecular nanotechnology, for example, which is a collision between chemistry, physics, biology and engineering (to name a few). We will undoubtedly uncover many mysteries of both physics (at small scales) and biology as we work to create molecular scale materials and devices.

Many of the fields I just described already exist today, but they're arguably still proto-sciences that are in their first or second generation of development.

Technology is applied science

Science feeds technological development, which in turn inspires the sciences. But ultimately, all technologists are scientists. They just happen to apply their work to the real world. Without science, engineers are merely hopeful conjurers.

Which brings me to another reason that I am confident for future scientific breakthroughs: we still cannot create sufficiently accurate models of the world around us.

The human brain immediately comes to mind. If science is at an end, and we've discovered all there is to know, then why can't we create an accurate and fully functional model of the human brain? And where the heck is our modern theory of consciousness?

The list goes on. What about the science of aging? How come we haven't eradicated all diseases? Why do we still have cars that run on fossil fuels? How about addressing climate change? And what about a clean and sustainable energy source?

These are not technological problems -- they are scientific problems. And they're all tractable. Further, because there is a strong desire to solve such problems there's is a good chance that we eventually will.

And as for science coming to an end, not by a long shot. We still live in a world of mystery and doubt. Yes, science has done an admirable job answering questions to date, but there's still considerable work to be done.

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