25 Years of the End of Science (or at least the end of physics?)

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John Horgan's book The End of Science was published nearly 25 years ago. This retrospective from 2006 he states

Optimists insist that revolutionary discoveries surely lie just around the corner. Perhaps the big advance will spring from physicists' quest for a theory of everything; from studies of "emergent" phenomena with many moving parts, such as ecologies and economies; from advances in computers and mathematics; from nanotechnology, biotechnology, and other applied sciences; or from investigations of how brains make minds. "I can see problems ahead of all sizes, and clearly many of them are soluble," says physicist and Nobel laureate Philip Anderson (who, in 1999, coined the term Horganism to describe "the belief that the end of science . . . is at hand"). On the flip side, some skeptics contend that science can never end because all knowledge is provisional and subject to change.

For the 10th anniversary of The End of Science I wanted to address these new objections. What I find is that the limits of scientific inquiry are more visible than ever. My goal, now as then, is not to demean valuable ongoing research but to challenge excessive faith in scientific progress.

https://www.discovermagazine.com/th...rontier-are-we-reaching-the-limits-of-science

Not much has happened since 2006 to show that John was wrong. His premise, as far as I read it, is that we are unlikely to see more great fundamental discoveries like General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics or Evolution. and likely already know nearly everything it is possible to know, at least within our lifetimes. Less clear to me why this should be true in biology, where things like CRISPR which was barely understood in 2006, or epigenetics or the gut flora all seem promising and untapped new areas. Physics, as an outsider, on the other hand appears to be a fully mature discipline, with no major new discoveries in 50 years since the Standard Model was developed.
 

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  • #2
BillTre
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What about LIGO and gravitational waves?
That seems pretty major to me.
A whole new vista on the physics of the natural world was opened, and will continue to be explored for quite a while.

There are also new molecular forms, like graphine which provide a challenge in the physical explanations of their properties.

The study of life is still expanding (as already mentioned) not just in techniques, but also at more conceptual ways: neurobiology/consciousness connection, gene transcription determining cell/tissue properties, origin of life/eukaryots/multicellularity, generation of higher order biological strutures...
 
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  • #3
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What about LIGO and gravitational waves?
An observation confirming predictions of a 100 year old theory? How is that a new fundamental discovery?
 
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  • #4
BillTre
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Direct observations of events formerly unseeable and therefore untestable.
Its a science thing.
 
  • #5
russ_watters
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Unless something changes or is expected to change, it does seem to me that there is a diminishing return in adding additional decimal places to an experimental result.
 
  • #6
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Good short interview from 1999, before Charlie got cancelled

 
  • #8
BillTre
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Less clear to me why this should be true in biology, where things like CRISPR which was barely understood in 2006

While Crisper is certainly worthy of a Nobel prize, it does not represent a fundamental breakthrough in biological understanding.
It is an extremely useful technique (similar to PCR, which also get a Nobel prize) which has many useful applications which can illuminate other issues.

If Crisper qulaifies as somtething of importance, the Gravitational Wave Detection certainly would also.
 
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  • #9
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His premise, as far as I read it, is that we are unlikely to see more great fundamental discoveries like General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics or Evolution. and likely already know nearly everything it is possible to know, at least within our lifetimes.

It's insightful to consider the history of some of the fundamental discoveries listed here. We thought that we had figured out the laws of motion and gravitation from the time of Newton for hundreds of years before Einstein formulated special and general relativity. Would scientists in the late 19th century/early 20th century have thought that the study of mechanics and gravity were at their end? It's not necessarily true that for a new revolutionary discovery out there, there needs to be big gaping hole in our understanding.

That said, I do agree that biology is certainly a field where new paradigms could emerge because there are big gaping holes in our knowledge. We still lack a fundamental understanding of many key aspects of biology, such as how the brain works (and how this function goes wrong in any number of neurological disorders). While Darwin's theory of natural selection is cited as a great fundamental discovery, the study of evolution has undergone major revisions since the days of Darwin reflecting subsequent major discoveries that revolutionized our understanding of biology (e.g. the discovery of genes and genetics, and the discovery of DNA as the genetic material) which has made important changes to how we think about evolution in modern times. There are still important gaps in this knowledge as well that could change how we think about biology and evolution (for example, we know how to interpret the code for the protein-coding parts of the genome, but this accounts for only 2% of the human genome. How do we interpret the functions of the non-coding parts of the human genome?).
 
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  • #10
Fervent Freyja
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Biology has many more open questions and mysteries than physics- there are thousands (and I am a problem hoarder). Many, if not most, of which can be solved by deriving a true first principle in a valid TOL. Think of a first principle as a ruler. A person or group that finds this can apply it to standing problems and find immediate solutions (or understanding); in addition, they will discover even more truths than we currently have.

The scientific community would be lit and busy for decades upon it’s discovery. We have to remember how lacking in any kind of precision we have, as evolutionary theories and such are actually mere summaries and general concepts (really, let that disappointment sink in). Across the board, in biology and other sciences directly related to a TOL, there are patterns that indicate to me (and I can only rely on my intuition) that a simple, yet, precise first principle can be derived from the *massive* amounts of data and knowledge that we have accumulated!

Upon analysis of a TOL I found that we need to have a better understanding of physics than current. Do the two go hand-in-hand? Does finding a first principle for a TOL require better physics?! Yes. Biology hasn’t fully integrated physics, computational methods, and targeted mathematics. We have found that interdisciplinary work produces the most value to society than physics/mathematics/biology alone. So, instead of thinking of progress in the old way, we have to see the whole of it all.

A take: if someone were to discover the underlying first and second order principles of physics, then it should inadvertently solve the TOL. Bottom-up style. In theory.

Be an optimist!
 
  • #11
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Yes but I wonder if these grand unified theories of biology would run into the same problem of making testable predictions that has stymied theoretical physics. We perhaps would need a larger sample size than one planet where life had evolved. We also are not likely not smart enough to derive biology from first principles, maybe an AI could in a generation.
 
  • #12
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There was a very productive century between Galileo and Newton. The next century, not so much. The one after that, again, a lot of progress. I think expecting regular breakthoughs on a schedule is unrealistic. Especially in light of history.
 
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  • #13
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There was a very productive century between Galileo and Newton. The next century, not so much. The one after that, again, a lot of progress. I think expecting regular breakthoughs on a schedule is unrealistic. Especially in light of history.
The OP is asking about breaktrhough availability, not breakthrough frequency.
 
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Yes, but if we were having breakthroughs left and right he wouldn't be asking about availability.
 
  • #15
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I don't think the 18th century was unproductive - the century saw foundational discoveries like electricity, conservation of mass, and the origins of geology (including the idea that maybe the Earth was older than 5000 years
 
  • #16
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Yes but I wonder if these grand unified theories of biology would run into the same problem of making testable predictions that has stymied theoretical physics. We perhaps would need a larger sample size than one planet where life had evolved. We also are not likely not smart enough to derive biology from first principles, maybe an AI could in a generation.

Life would not/does not evolve much differently on a different planet. Contrary to what people want to believe- weird molecular combinations to create alien proteins or whatever- physics specifically determines atomic/molecular compositions that lead to outcomes mostly as such as we find on earth. The electroweak force itself is highly constraining on what combinations in a protein are possible. Maybe Earth doesn’t have all possible outcomes, but it’s along the same line of physics to generate RNA/DNA. You cannot create some freak molecule out of a specific atom that leads to an alien. Conditions for the development of living matter are very rare in the universe and the rules for it’s creation are highly conserved and ruled by laws of physics. There is no need to wait. It’s more likely that we won’t encounter another lifeform from another planet before this planet Earth no longer exists. Of course, unless we can get ahold of fundamental principles for physics- then we can truly control our environment and maybe ultimately our own solar system. Maybe outrun our destiny to die out into nothingness.
 
  • #17
Obligatory:
Aristotle said a bunch of stuff that was wrong. Galileo and Newton fixed things up. Then Einstein broke everything again. Now, we’ve basically got it all worked out, except for small stuff, big stuff, hot stuff, cold stuff, fast stuff, heavy stuff, dark stuff, turbulence, and the concept of time
 
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  • #18
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His premise, as far as I read it, is that we are unlikely to see more great fundamental discoveries like General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics or Evolution. and likely already know nearly everything it is possible to know, at least within our lifetimes.

Sounds pretty narrow-minded to me considering we live in a massively non-linear world. But the author is a journalist, not a mathematician. How would he know? What of emergence? Sensitive dependence or the butterfly effect? The smallest of effect can cause the greatest of consequences. So too with discovery. Covid immediately comes to mind: one or two amino acids made all the difference? A random cosmic wave perhaps? Think of the Lorenz attractor, that owl-eyed icon of Chaos Theory: trajectories never cross. Infinitely complex in some ways. And the Universe is so much more complex. We need only peruse Equations of Mathematical Physics to see that; they're non-linear for a reason.

I seriously doubt, from all that I have seen in my lifetime, that there is any end to discovery, fundamental or otherwise precisely because of this non-linearity: plans within plans, worlds within worlds, like the Lorenz attractor, never ending. Just singularities, critical points, bifurcations, and catastrophe points separating us from what we know from further discoveries.
 
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  • #19
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Sounds pretty narrow-minded to me considering we live in a massively non-linear world. But the author is a journalist, not a mathematician. How would he know? What of emergence? Sensitive dependence or the butterfly effect? The smallest of effect can cause the greatest of consequences. So too with discovery. Covid immediately comes to mind: one or two amino acids made all the difference? A random cosmic wave perhaps? Think of the Lorenz attractor, that owl-eyed icon of Chaos Theory: trajectories never cross. Infinitely complex in some ways. And the Universe is so much more complex. We need only peruse Equations of Mathematical Physics to see that; they're non-linear for a reason.

I seriously doubt, from all that I have seen in my lifetime, that there is any end to discovery, fundamental or otherwise precisely because of this non-linearity: plans within plans, worlds within worlds, like the Lorenz attractor, never ending. Just singularities, critical points, bifurcations, and catastrophe points separating us from what we know from further discoveries.

certainly the original Lorenz paper in the early 60s was important, but I think Poincare was among the first to talk about what we now call chaotic systems. Ultimate, once you have proved that certain systems are unpredictable due to sensitivity to initial conditions there is not all that much left to do. Horgan did address this point in the link in the OP:

Argument: Reductionist science may be over, but a new kind of emergent science is just beginning. In his new book, A Different Universe, Robert Laughlin, a physicist and Nobel laureate at Stanford, concedes that science may in some ways have reached the "end of reductionism," which identifies the basic components and forces underpinning the physical realm. Nevertheless, he insists that scientists can discover profound new laws by investigating complex, emergent phenomena, which cannot be understood in terms of their individual components.

Physicist and software mogul Stephen Wolfram advances a similar argument from a more technological angle. He asserts that computer models called cellular automata represent the key to understanding all of nature's complexities, from quarks to economies. Wolfram found a wide audience for these ideas with his 1,200-page self-published opus A New Kind of Science. He asserts that his book has been seen as "initiating a paradigm shift of historic importance in science, with new implications emerging at an increasing rate every year."

Actually, Wolfram and Laughlin are recycling ideas propounded in the 1980s and 1990s in the fields of chaos and complexity, which I regard as a single field—I call it chaoplexity. Chaoplexologists harp on the fact that simple rules, when followed by a computer, can generate extremely complicated patterns, which appear to vary randomly as a function of time or scale. In the same way, they argue, simple rules must underlie many apparently noisy, complicated aspects of nature.

So far, chaoplexologists have failed to find any profound new scientific laws. I recently asked Philip Anderson, a veteran of this field, to list major new developments. In response he cited work on self-organized criticality, a mathematical model that dates back almost two decades and that has proved to have limited applications. One reason for chaoplexity's lack of progress may be the notorious butterfly effect, the notion that tiny changes in initial conditions can eventually yield huge consequences in a chaotic system; the classic example is that the beating of a butterfly's wings could eventually trigger the formation of a tornado. The butterfly effect limits both prediction and retrodiction, and hence explanation, because specific events cannot be ascribed to specific causes with complete certainty.
 
  • #20
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Life would not/does not evolve much differently on a different planet. Contrary to what people want to believe- weird molecular combinations to create alien proteins or whatever- physics specifically determines atomic/molecular compositions that lead to outcomes mostly as such as we find on earth. The electroweak force itself is highly constraining on what combinations in a protein are possible. Maybe Earth doesn’t have all possible outcomes, but it’s along the same line of physics to generate RNA/DNA. You cannot create some freak molecule out of a specific atom that leads to an alien. Conditions for the development of living matter are very rare in the universe and the rules for it’s creation are highly conserved and ruled by laws of physics. There is no need to wait. It’s more likely that we won’t encounter another lifeform from another planet before this planet Earth no longer exists. Of course, unless we can get ahold of fundamental principles for physics- then we can truly control our environment and maybe ultimately our own solar system. Maybe outrun our destiny to die out into nothingness.

not sure what fundamental physics we are lacking

I agree that at the most basic level extraterrestrial life would have similarities, but there are an awful lot of details for devils. How different would proteins and metabolic pathways be? Would there be the similar kingdoms? Had British science not left the island and seen global biodiversity first-hand, we would not have the Theory of Evolution
 
  • #21
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John Horgan's book The End of Science was published nearly 25 years ago. This retrospective from 2006 he states



https://www.discovermagazine.com/th...rontier-are-we-reaching-the-limits-of-science

Not much has happened since 2006 to show that John was wrong. His premise, as far as I read it, is that we are unlikely to see more great fundamental discoveries like General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics or Evolution. and likely already know nearly everything it is possible to know, at least within our lifetimes. Less clear to me why this should be true in biology, where things like CRISPR which was barely understood in 2006, or epigenetics or the gut flora all seem promising and untapped new areas. Physics, as an outsider, on the other hand appears to be a fully mature discipline, with no major new discoveries in 50 years since the Standard Model was developed.

Among the problems I have with Horgan's premise in his book (and your premise in this thread) is that while we think that we already know nearly everything that is possible to know within our lifetimes, by definition we are unaware of what we don't know.

With respect to physics, you are bemoaning the lack of major new discoveries in 50 years since the Standard Model was developed -- however, discoveries do not occur on a linear trajectory. During the decades prior to Einstein's discovery of General Relativity, it was a general consensus of physicists at the time that all physical phenomena were for the most part readily discovered and explained and only a "few details" needed to be discovered. Those "few details" led to the upending of physics with General Relativity. Who is to say that a similar discovery of similar magnitude may not occur?
 
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  • #22
StatGuy2000
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Unless something changes or is expected to change, it does seem to me that there is a diminishing return in adding additional decimal places to an experimental result.

The thing about science -- any science-- is that "something" often changes based on new findings and the building of major theories to explain such new findings.
 
  • #23
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Among the problems I have with Horgan's premise in his book (and your premise in this thread) is that while we think that we already know nearly everything it is possible to know within our lifetimes, by definition we are unaware of what we don't know.

With respect to physics, you are bemoaning the lack of major new discoveries in 50 years since the Standard Model was developed, discoveries do not occur on a linear trajectory. During the decades prior to Einstein's discovery of General Relativity, it was a general consensus of physicists at the time that all physical phenomena were for the most part readily discovered and explained and only a "few details" needed to be discovered. Those "few details" led to the upending of physics with General Relativity. Who is to say that a similar discovery of similar magnitude may not occur?
Perhaps, and I would love for that to be true, but there were a lot of unexplained phenomena at the end of the 19th century. It plays well to create the image of arrogant Victorian scientists who thought they had discovered most everything, but the reality is they had - the theoretical basis of classical and statistical mechanics was mostly codified by 1900. But they were also well aware of unexplained phenomena, - structure of the atom, the behavior of light etc. Where are the unexplained phenomena today analogous to black body radiation or the photoelectric effect in the 19th century? The Victorians missed that new physics existed at either end of the scale spectrum that would require major theoretical work. Presumably there are no new physics to be found today other than going even farther out - scales where string theory supposedly happens or mass densities that occurred in the earliest stages of the Big Band or within black holes. What are the prospects for us ever knowing what happens at these scales? Saw somewhere that directly finding strings would require a particle accelerator 1000 light years in diameter
 
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  • #24
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Perhaps, and I would love for that to be true, but there were a lot of unexplained phenomena at the end of the 19th century. It plays well to create the image of arrogant Victorian scientists who thought they had discovered most everything, but the reality is they had - the theoretical basis of classical and statistical mechanics was mostly codified by 1900. But they were also well aware of unexplained phenomena, - structure of the atom, the behavior of light etc. Where are the unexplained phenomena today analogous to black body radiation or the photoelectric effect in the 19th century? The Victorians missed that new physics existed at either end of the scale spectrum that would require major theoretical work. Presumably there are no new physics to be found today other than going even farther out - scales where string theory supposedly happens or mass densities that occurred in the earliest stages of the Big Band or within black holes. What are the prospects for us ever knowing what happens at these scales? Saw somewhere that directly finding strings would require a particle accelerator 1000 light years in diameter

We remember blackbody radiation and the photoelectric effect in retrospect because they were so significant in the discovery of quantum mechanics. There are certainly unexplained areas of physics that could lead to new discoveries, such as understanding dark matter and dark energy (though I am not an expert in these questions, so please correct me if I am wrong).
 
  • #25
atyy
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Dark matter

Also, the relationship between gravity and entanglement is already a mini-breakthrough. This is also related to the questions raised by Hawking's discovery that black holes are not black.
https://arxiv.org/abs/1609.00026
 
  • #26
BMV guy seems to know what he's talking about and makes some good points. Though I don't know much about science. Thanks for the read!
 
  • #27
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There are comments by Feynman that are somewhat similar to the OP's thoughts.

https://jamesclear.com/great-speeches/seeking-new-laws-by-richard-feynman
https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/project/tuva-richard-feynman/#!7-new-laws
"Or it might happen that the experiments get harder and harder to make, more and more expensive, that you get 99.9% of the phenomena. But there’s always some phenomenon which has just been discovered that’s very hard to measure, which disagrees and gets harder and harder to measure. As you discover the explanation of that one, there’s always another one. And it gets slower and slower and more and more uninteresting. That’s another way that it could end.

But I think it has to end in one way or another. And I think that we are very lucky to live in the age in which we’re still making the discoveries. It’s an age which will never come again. It’s like the discoveries of America. You only discover it once. It was an exciting day, when there was investigations of America.

But the age that we live in is the age in which we are discovering the fundamental laws of nature. And that day will never come again. I don’t mean we’re finished. I mean, we’re right in the process of making such discoveries. It’s very exciting and marvelous, but this excitement will have to go."

https://www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu/II_41.html
"The next great era of awakening of human intellect may well produce a method of understanding the qualitative content of equations. Today we cannot. Today we cannot see that the water flow equations contain such things as the barber pole structure of turbulence that one sees between rotating cylinders. Today we cannot see whether Schrödinger’s equation contains frogs, musical composers, or morality—or whether it does not. We cannot say whether something beyond it like God is needed, or not. And so we can all hold strong opinions either way."
 
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  • #28
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His premise, as far as I read it, is that we are unlikely to see more great fundamental discoveries like General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics or Evolution. and likely already know nearly everything it is possible to know, at least within our lifetimes.
It sounds like pretty much the opposite of what I think. I mean, how could what is essentially the beginning of an era of quantum computing, big data, AI, DNA decoding, space travel, space colonization and space industrialization, etc, be at the end of science? And in terms of observation, the scientific instruments we have now are peanuts compared to what we will have later on. I think something like a "technological singularity" is likely though.
 
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  • #29
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It sounds like pretty much the opposite of what I think. I mean, how could what is essentially the beginning of an era of quantum computing, big data, AI, DNA decoding, space travel, space colonization and space industrialization, etc, be at the end of science? And in terms of observation, the scientific instruments we have now are peanuts compared to what we will have later on. I think something like a "technological singularity" is likely though.
.
But what fundamental new science is required for all of that? Isn’t that just more technological applications of established science? Maybe we will make some fundamental discovery around consciousness and cognition awaits that would enable strong AI, but everything else there is based on existing science
 
  • #30
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But what fundamental new science is required for all of that? Isn’t that just more technological applications of established science? Maybe we will make some fundamental discovery around consciousness and cognition awaits that would enable strong AI, but everything else there is based on existing science
I think that those are all extreme scientific tools that will unlock an entirely new level of science. Quantum computers for example unlock the ability to do quantum gravity simulations. Massive observational tools unlock abilities to test theories like never before. AI offers abilities to work on previously intractable mathematics problems, to explore the galaxy, and to build extreme scientific tools (e.g. massive computers, massive telescopes, massive accelerators, etc).

I'm not sure what exactly we can call fundamental science anyways so that the examples given (e.g. general relativity, QM) count. Those theories are good models, but we still haven't figured out quantum gravity, dark matter, particle physics, etc. We just made our first room temperature semiconductor (at high pressure), but we have no sufficient theoretical tools that allow us to just know how to make them. We have decoded human DNA, but need to do supercomputer simulations to see how a protein will fold. We now know that the human brain measures and processes magnetic fields (like Turtles etc do), but we have little idea how and what for. The other sciences on top of Physics are even more challenging due to the complexity. We aren't even done studying the logistic map.

We are basically at the start of where we can really begin to get into fundamental discovery. What we don't know is way more than we know, and basically endless. Even some seemingly simple problems likely cannot be solved before the universe ends. There will never be enough Matrioshka brains, never enough observational data, never enough time to crack the hardest problems.

Anyways, that's my opinion. I don't think GR and QM will even look like fundamental science at some point.
 
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