It seems that every so often, a fairly large group of scientists begin
assert that science is just about complete, that the vast unknown is gone,
and that all the really major research can stop because we now know
everything except the details.
For those who fall under the spell of this sort of belief, be aware
similar belief seemed to have taken hold at the turn of the last century.
This was just before Relativity and Quantum Mechanics appeared on the
scene and opened up new realms for exploration.
"When I began my physical studies [in Munich in 1874] and sought advice from my venerable teacher Philipp von Jolly... he portrayed to me physics as a highly developed, almost fully matured science... Possibly in one or another nook there would perhaps be a dust particle or a small bubble to be examined and classified, but the system as a whole stood there fairly secured, and theoretical physics approached visibly that degree of perfection which, for example, geometry has had already for centuries."
From ca. 1875:
"Sometimes I really regret that I did not live in those times when there was still so much that was new; to be sure enough much is yet unknown, but I do not think that it will be possible to discover anything easily nowadays that would lead us to revise our entire outlook as radically as was possible in the days when telescopes and microscopes were still new."
"We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy."
"The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.... Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals."
"There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement" - Lord Kelvin
From a bit earlier:
"So many centuries after the Creation, it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value." - Spanish Royal Commission, rejecting Christopher Columbus' proposal to sail west.
Just because the size of the 'Unknown' in the world seems
small, we shouldn't assume that it in fact is small. The size of
is just a guesstimate. The true size of the unknown is...
Just when all
researchers become convinced that a field of science is exhausted, an
unexpected new discovery can reveal the existence of a vast and unexplored
territory which up to that moment had been invisible. The history of
science contains many examples. But hindsight doesn't help, and try as we
might, we cannot become the next Einstein just because we try to be.
And so we should steer clear of any self-centered reasoning
which holds that, "since I personally cannot see numerous new realms
exploration, then such realms must not exist!"
I perceive two main paths to progress in science. One path is to push
forward into a diminishing group of well recognized but as yet
areas. The other path is to search for new areas whose existence is not
To pursue the latter, look to Nature. Search for phenomena which cannot
be explained using current theory. Note that this invariably involves
going against the opinions of the majority. It means that you must give
more weight to reported events which any rational researcher would dismiss
as being impossible. Any discoveries which would significantly
alter the current theories are ALWAYS impossible when viewed in light
of those current theories. To make revolutionary discoveries, you'll have
to break away from the herd and march to the beat of a different drummer.
Also, listen to the voices of the small minority of researchers who are
already exploring unsuspected new realms, but who have been ignored by the
wider scientific community because of their unconventional interests.
Yes, sometimes there are unseen new realms still awaiting the first
discoverer. But at other times the new realm has already been discovered
by one or a few, yet its existence is being denied by the majority on the
grounds that the new realm is pseudoscience, that it's are forbidden by
well-tested theories, or that it's just too crazy to be true. If Science
holds various "unexplained phenomena" in contempt, grouping it all
together with Bigfoot and UFO abductions, then this forms a barrier
against free exploration. Also, it almost guarantees that interesting
things yet lie preserved beyond the barrier of disbelief.
It's the conceit of every age to believe that scientific advancement
has at last reached it's pinnacle, while future explorers will have
very little left to do. So, in order to open the way to revolutionary
discovery, you must reject this conceit.
More food for thought:
"In real life, every field of science is incomplete, and most of them - whatever the record of accomplisment during the last 200 years - are still in their very earliest stages." -Lewis ThomasToday we can smirk about those who declared science to be finished a century ago. Shouldn't we take this lesson to heart, and be careful not to repeat the same mistake? Will scientists of future centuries find great humor in "informed" contemporary declarations that Science is near its end?
Also see The End of Horgan, learned responses to Horgan's book THE END OF SCIENCE.