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Science is at its end,
all the important things
have already been discovered!

          W. Beaty

It seems that every so often, a fairly large group of scientists begin to 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 that a 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.

From 1874:

"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 a 1924 lecture by Max Planck (Sci. Am, Feb 1996 p.10)

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."
- Heinrich Hertz as a physics student

From 1888:

"We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy."
- Simon Newcomb, early American astronomer

From 1894:

"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."
- Albert. A. Michelson, speech at the dedication of Ryerson Physics Lab, U. of Chicago 1894

From 1900:

"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 the Unknown is just a guesstimate. The true size of the unknown is... UNKNOWN!

Just when all the sensible 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 needing 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 uninvestigated areas. The other path is to search for new areas whose existence is not even suspected.

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 Thomas

"I have begun to feel that there is a tendency in 20th Century science to forget that there will be a 21st Century science, and indeed a 30th Century science, from which vantage points our knowledge of the universe may appear quite different than it does to us. We suffer, perhaps, from temporal provincialism, a form of arrogance that has always irritated posterity. - J. Allen Hynek, letter to Science magazine, August 1, 1966

"New and stirring things are belittled because if they are not belittled, the humiliating question arises, 'Why then are you not taking part in them?' " - H. G. Wells

"I think it is a kind of intellectual chauvinism to assume that all the laws of physics have been discovered by the year of our meeting. Had we held this meeting twenty or forty years ago, we would perhaps have erroneously drawn the same conclusion." - Carl Sagan, 1971

"On any Tuesday morning, if asked, a good working scientist will tell you with some self-satisfaction that the affairs of his field are nicely in order, that things are finally looking clear and making sense, and all is well. But come back again on another Tuesday, and the roof may have just fallen in on his life's work." -Lewis Thomas

"No matter how we may single out a complex from nature...its theoretical treatment will never prove to be ultimately conclusive... I believe that this process of deepening of theory has no limits." - Albert Einstein, 1917

"The whole procedure [of shooting rockets into space]...presents difficulties of so fundamental a nature, that we are forced to dismiss the notion as essentially impracticable, in spite of the author's insistent appeal to put aside prejudice and to recollect the supposed impossibility of heavier-than-air flight before it was actually accomplished." -Sir Richard van der Riet Wooley, British astronomer, reviewing P.E. Cleator's "Rockets in Space", Nature, March 14, 1936

Today 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.

 





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