Hawking Up Hairballs

Friday, February 08, 2008

The End of Science?

You just might be a nerd, if this makes you chuckle. "Heisenberg might have slept here." But on with the show.

I'm reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2007", editied by Richard Preston. One of the articles in there is "The Final Frontier" by John Horgan, a science journalist who is also on the staff of the Stevens Institute of Technology. In the article, he offers up the opinion that we just may be at the end of science as we've known it. He has apparently also written a book on the subject, The End of Science. As Horgan's article says about his book, "I made the case that science - especially pure science, the grand quest to understand the universe and our place in it - might be reaching a cul-de-sac, yielding 'no more great revelations or revolutions, but only incremental, diminishing returns.'"

I'm inclined to agree with Horgan's assessment. I have followed theoretical physics as an interested layman for a long time now, and I keep up with a couple of blogs on the subject. Though most of the scientists in the field would probably disagree, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that the physics of first principles, of subatomic particles and the forces that lie at the basis of the universe is pretty much played out. Physicists keep lobbying for larger and more expensive particle accelerators with little to be expected in return except for possible verifications for increasingly esoteric theories. The latest accelerator that has them all hot and panting is the Large Hadron Collider, which is scheduled to come online sometime this year. The LHC, as it is referred to, is 16.5 miles in diameter and will employ a couple of thousand scientists and technicians. With overruns, it is costing around three billion Swiss francs to build. That's about 2.7 billion dollars.

The promoters of this accelerator name all kinds of experiments that will be carried out on this machine, but there's really only one thing the physics community is interested in. Will the LHC's energies be sufficient to generate the Higgs boson. This is an as-yet-undetected particle predicted by the so-called Standard Model, which is the accepted theory of subatomic physics. What happens if the LHC fails to detect this Higgs boson? Well, then certain theoretical predictions will be proven false, and new hypotheses will have to be generated. And, oh yes, they will need a bigger, more expensive machine that can generate even greater energies. You get the point, the cost-to-benefit ratios have become huge.

I'm not making an anti-science argument here, nor is Horgan. It's a question of emphasis. As he points out in the article, the money devoted to scientific research might better be applied to "back filling" in the areas we already know about. For example, wouldn't it be a better use of money to invest in a big way in solid-state physics, just to name one field? It is much more likely that such research will produce results that will prove of benefit. But solid-state physics isn't sexy. It isn't the sort of field that the towering intellects are drawn to.

Horgan reports that a lot of scientists disagree with him, some of them quite vehemently. That's understandable. I'm sure a lot of them perceive him as attacking their livelihoods, but there's more to it in that. One of the underlying beliefs in the Western cultural and intellectual traditions is the notion of progress. As time goes on, it is expected that we will learn more and more as things get better and better for all of mankind. That just might not be true though. Everything must come to an end, even the quest for scientific first principles.


Blogger David Matthews said...

Just what I need, confirmation I'm a nerd.

Interesting essay. I tend to agree with you.

10:04 AM  

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