Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The end of science is near, again.

The recent Nature issue has a comment titled
by Dean Keith Simonton who is professor of psychology at UC Davis. Ah, wait, 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.


  1. Like for the end of the world, the claim for the end of science was made many times before (http://amasci.com/weird/end.html) and was proven wrong. This is probably no different since there is still many known problems and unknowns in all the realms of science.

  2. As distinguishe Professor of philosophy is not qualified to talk about the future of fundamental physics or fundamental science generally. He is at most an expert in fundamental philosophy ...

    Nature should not have featured him as an expert talking about such topics. But I noted quite some time ago that in such popular magazines (in the Scientific Amarican it is the same), the expertise of people who actually work in a field that Nature wants to report about, is no longer in demand by the editors :-/. They rather like not qualified nonexperts on the topic giving their often biased and in the worst case even misleading opions ...

  3. Or maybe they thought publishing his thesis in an actual science magazine might provide some missing feedback ;o)

  4. I have a somewhat similar opinion - there is a lot to be discovered in physics, but most of the new stuff is useless for us.

    Think about it - the last major useful discovery from the fundamental physics was nuclear fission (and fusion). And they are trivial from the modern theoretical physics point of view. Everything after that has been useless so far and probably will stay this way for hundreds of years.

    Sure, it would be interesting to imagine what you could do with superconducting metallic hydrogen or design rockets fueled by expanding neutronium. Or maybe Hawking-radiation powered black-hole energy generators.

    Except that we can't feasibly produce them. And that's not going to change even if we discover the correct quantum gravity theory tomorrow.

  5. /* wait, according to his website he isn't just professor, he is Distinguished Professor */

    Your dismissive stance is somewhat suspicious, because before few years your teacher Lee Smolin got to the nearly the same conclusion in his essay...

    BTW Lee isn't even a distinguished professor...

  6. Simonton disparages the "AHA!" of discovery. This is a politically secure niche,

    Admissions Criteria and Diversity in Graduate School

    The congenitally inconsequential must be Laval nozzle-thrust into physics graduate studies. Admission by disqualification makes physics strong. Hate language. Celebrate compulsory degradative egalitarianism!

    William Shockley was a virulent racist and anti-Semite; a grasping loony, paranoiac, and sociopath; and brilliant. Eight of Shockley’s employees started 65 companies. Better one autistic William Shockley than 10,000 dullards empowering flatus. Mediocrity is a vice of the doomed.

  7. The next border is complexity, and collective behaviors.

    Not a surprise that in physics the border is BEC, superconduction and... forget it... let's say something that you cannot understand without collective QM.

    simplest part of that border is multibody computation, virtual particles like SPP, ... hight temp BEC...

    Complexity of sand, sociophysic, "matière molle" as was saying pierre gilles de gennes, of genetic, epigenetic and proteonic network, is the next frontier. In physics, but also in all domain, even to sociology/psychology, cognition...

    and it will be fun.
    as know any numerical engineer, the equations are the simplest part of the problem... the approximation and assumption does most of the job. Change them and you can get farther.

    I don't think that physics is finished... I think that today's simplistic approach is finished...

    and guess what, you can only see that out of the box.

    AlainCo the tech-watcher of lenr-forum...

  8. Well, I know of no logical reason why science should go on forever...it's only been 500 years; do we really expect, say, 5M more? Personally, I don't believe it's too close to over yet, because pretty major things are still happening every decade, but the time will probably come. The universe doesn't seem to be made with us in mind, and that probably includes not being made to provide us with endless scientific puzzles for our amusement! However, it would be a big mistake to give up now, when there are clearly major things we don't know, and the expense is not so huge in the scheme of things.


  9. If we have not discovered what the dark matter objects are, and if we have not discovered the cause of "dark energy" acceleration, how could anyone think that no big discoveries remain to be made?!

    In terms of mass/energy, we are literally in the dark regarding 99% of the cosmos.

    When someone says that big discoveries are just about over, you can bet the farm that big discoveries are around the next corner.

    Same as it ever was.

  10. "In terms of mass/energy, we are literally in the dark regarding 99% of the cosmos."

    And so? It's also incredibly diffuse. There's probably no way to use it for anything practical without galactic-scale engineering.

    So yes, discovering the dark matter composition would be a nice exercise, for the sake of knowledge. But it won't be on the scale of Newton's laws or electromagnetism.

  11. "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."

    I am currently reading Barrow's The Book of Universes. I have read most of Barrow's popular books (and a few of his scientific papers; this is a guy who can turn out a dozen single-author papers in the leading journals and a popular book or two in a year, all while working just 9 to 5, so reading and understanding all of his technical papers is a huge task) and this is as good as the others. Even though most of the material is familiar to me, Barrow's books always contain some additional insight which makes them worth reading and sets them apart from other popular books on the same topic. Even though this current book is very close to my own area of interest, I still learned two completely new things (I am about half-way through the book); bonus points if anyone can guess what they are.

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  13. Hi Bee,

    I find myself in agreement with all of your points as to why science shouldn’t be considered anywhere near to being a fait accompli. Moreover as you know, with respect to Quantum Gravity and its foundations, I strongly suspect that the foundations of the foundations are still not much more than a mirage. For the life of me I can’t imagine how Prof. Simonton thinks as he does, particularly with adjectives such as dark now attached to phenomena and technologies such as quantum computing, whose realization most likely will inform us more about the theory(s) upon which it is founded, than the theory(s) does about its potential. The bottom line for me being, that within the last century uncertainty was brought to mean something respective of science and mathematics other than to define the practical limits to being certain, which in turn I think should apply as much to our expectations as it does to the science(s) which had us to know this being so.

    “The real end of science is the honour of the human mind.”

    - Carl Jacobi



  14. A famously misguided pronouncement from the turn of the 20th century comes to mind:
    "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement"

    Whether it was Kelvin who said it or not, it shows how arrogant some scientists were before Quantum Mechanics came along and knocked everything up into the air. I expect there may be developments in the near future which will do the same.

  15. @Cyberax, "discovering the dark matter composition... won't be on the scale of Newton's laws or electromagnetism." Vacuum is mirror-symmetric toward massless boson photons. Fermionic matter has parity violations, symmetry breakings; Chern-Simons corrections to Einstein-Hilbert action. Vacuum is trace chiral anisotropic toward matter. Noetherian connection between vacuum isotropy and matter angular momentum conservation then leaks MOND's 1.2×10^(-10) m/sec^2 Milgrom acceleration. Dark matter curve fits the Tully-Fisher relation. No dark matter.

    Opposite shoes fit into chiral vacuum differently. They locally vacuum free fall along non-identical minimum action trajectories, violating the Equivalence Principle (EP). Periodic lattices test vacuum isotropy (arxiv:1109.1963). Crystallography offers chemically and macroscopically identical, single crystal test masses in enantiomorphic space groups: P3(1)21 versus P3(2)21 alpha-quartz or P3(1) versus P3(2) gamma-glycine. The EP is trivially (jpeg) falsified to 5×10^(-14) difference/average sensitivity in 90 days, arxiv:1207.2442.

    Falsifying conservation of angular momentum, consistent with prior observation, is bigger than "the scale of Newton's laws or electromagnetism". A chirped pulse microwave spectrometer is two days. Observe differential rotation temperatures of D_3-trishomocubane (gif; upper left, 1R,3R,5R,6R,8R,10R) resolved enantiomers (or their triketones) in a deep cryogenic supersonic vacuum expansion beam oriented north-south, one enantiomer each day at local 0600, 1200, 1800, and 2400 hrs. An undergraduate could astound physics (and refute Simonton).

  16. ... imagine that our improved knowledge ... would allow us to create synthetic nuclei (molecei) that would not have been produced by any natural processes anywhere in the universe ...

    Please do not make ice-nine:

  17. The name John Horgan popped into my mind as I was reading.



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  19. The problem with the long load time is back. This occurs from time to time. Normally, the page loads in about a second. Today, 5 minutes. As always, Blogger blogs are affected.

  20. Phillip: Sorry about that, it all works fine for me. What browser are you using? Best,

  21. Peter Cuttell:

    Yes, there is a similar quote by Morley I think, who said something to the extend that there's just this tiny problem left with Planck's radiation law... That's exactly the point I was trying to make: you don't know how big or small the fish at the "loose end" is until you've seen it. Best,


  22. Hi Phil,

    You're raising a much deeper issue, that being whether there are indeed final foundations. That is of course part of the question. Barrow in his book makes a very good point though which is that on top of the question what nature fundamentally "is" (in lack of a better word), there is the question how much we can possibly achieve with the constraints and initial conditions that we have, that being us humans with little brains sitting on a planet with finite resources. Personally I believe that it's more likely we'll first encounter our economic limits before we encounter fundamental ones. Best,


  23. This week's issue of Nature has letters commenting on the essay. This one is very to the point:


  24. I will simply say, I don't think scientific genius has come to an end. I sure hope not.


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