according to his website he isn't just professor, he is Distinguished Professor. His piece is subscription only, so let me briefly summarize what he writes. Simonton notes it has become rare that new disciplines of science are being created:
“Our theories and instruments now probe the earliest seconds and farthest reaches of the Universe, and we can investigate the tiniest of life forms and the shortest-lived of subatomic particles. It is difficult to imagine that scientists have overlooked some phenomenon worthy of its own discipline alongside astronomy physics, chemistry and biology. For more than a century, any new discipline has been a hybrid of one of these, such as astrophysics, biochemistry or astrobiology. Future advances are likely to build on what is already known rather than alter the foundations of knowledge. One of the biggest recent scientific accomplishments is the discovery of the Higgs boson – the existence of which was predicted decades ago.”He argues that scientific progress will not stall, but what’s going to happen is that we’ll be filling in the dots in a landscape whose rough features are now known:
“Just as athletes can win an Olympic gold medal by beating the world record only by a fraction of a second, scientists can continue to receive Nobel prizes for improving the explanatory breadth of theories of the preciseness of measurements.”I have some issues with his argument
First, he doesn’t actually discuss scientific genius or any other type of genius. He is instead talking about the foundation of knowledge that he seems to imagine as building blocks of scientific disciplines. While it seems fair to say that the creation of a new scientific discipline scores high on the genius scale, it’s not a necessary criterion. Simonton acknowledges
“[I]f anything, scientists today might require more raw intelligence to become a first-rate researcher than it took to become a genius during… the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, given how much information and experience researchers must now acquire to become proficient.”but one is still left wondering what he means with genius to begin with, or why it appears in the title of his comment if he doesn’t explain or discuss it.
Second, I am unhappy with his imagery of the foundations of knowledge, which I must have as I believe in reductionism. The foundation is, always, what’s the currently most fundamental theory and it presently resides in physics. Other disciplines have their own “knowledge” that exists independently of physics, because the derivation of other discipline’s “knowledge” is not presently possible, or if it was, it would be entirely impractical.
The difference between these two images matters: In Simonton’s image there’s each discipline and its knowledge. In my image there’s physics and the presently unknown relations between physics and other theories (and thereby these theories among each other). You see then what Simonton is missing: Yes, we know the very large and the very small quite well. But our understanding of complex systems and their behavior has only just begun. Now if we understand better the complex systems that are subject of study in disciplines like biology, neuroscience and politics, this might not create a new discipline in that the name would probably not change. But it has the potential to vastly increase our understanding of the world around us, in very contrast to the incremental improvements that Simonton believes we’re headed towards. Simonton’s argument is akin to saying that once one knows the anatomy of the human body, the rest of medicine is just details.
Third, he has a very limited imagination. I am imagining extraterrestrial life making use of chemistry entirely alien to ours, with cultures entirely different from ours, or disembodied conscious beings floating through the multiverse. You can see what I’m saying: there’s more to the universe than we have seen so far and there is really no telling what we’ll find if we keep on looking.
Fourth, he is underestimating the relevance of what we don’t know. Simonton writes
“The core disciplines have accumulated not so much anomalies as mere loose ends that will be tidied up one way or another. A possible exception is theoretical physics, which is as yet unable to integrate gravity with the other three forces of nature.”I guess he deserves credit for having heard or quantum gravity. Yes, the foundations are incomplete. But that's not a small missing piece, it's huge, and nobody knows how huge.
To draw upon an example I used earlier, imagine that our improved knowledge of the fundamental ingredients of our theories would allow us to create synthetic nuclei (molecei) that would not have been produced by any natural processes anywhere in the universe. They would have their own chemistry, their own biology, and would interact with the matter we already have in novel ways. Now you could complain that this would be just another type of chemistry rather than a new discipline, but that’s just nomenclature. The relevant point is that this would be a dramatic discovery affecting all of the natural sciences. You never know what you’ll find if you follow the loose ends.
In summary: It might be true what Simonton says, that we have made pretty much all major discoveries and everything that is now to come will be incremental. Or it might not be true. I really do not see what evidence his “thesis”, as he calls it, is based upon, other than stating the obvious, that the low hanging fruits are the first to be eaten.
Aside: John Barrow in his book “Impossibility” discussed the three different scenarios of scientific progress: progress ending, asymptotically stagnating, or forever expanding. I found it considerably more insightful than Simonton’s vague comment.