THE END OF SCIENCE: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age.

THE END OF SCIENCE: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age.

Paul R. Gross

By John Horgan. Addison Wesley Longman. 320 pp. $24

Read Time:
3m 11sec

Ours is a time of endings: not just of a century but of a millennium. Honoring custom, we daily announce finalities. Academics lecture on "late"—not "advanced"—capitalism. Optimists foresee the demise of talk shows, pessimists the death of the humanities. Can modern science, gray with 300 years, be far behind?

According to Horgan, many of the best and brightest scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers are resigned to defeat. What looms is a "postempirical" and "ironic" approach: the abandonment of the search for fundamental laws of nature, and the rise of a "science" that is . . . well, anxious, evocative, literary. In Horgan’s words, "One must accept the possibility—even the probability—that the great era of scientific discovery is over. By science I mean not applied science, but science at its purest and grandest, the primordial human quest to understand the universe and our place in it. Further research may yield no more great revelations or revolutions, but only incremental, diminishing returns."

Horgan is the well-known author of profiles appearing in Scientific American, where he has explored the thinking and (more effectively) the personalities of a galaxy of stars, or at least scintillators, among those who have been doing science or metascience for the past few decades. His finely crafted interviews have been adapted for The End of Science, with new material added. For anyone interested in the far frontiers of basic science and philosophy of science, not to mention the peculiar people who excel at such work, this book will prove absorbing.

Among the personas explored, all are cleverly and accurately depicted, although Horgan’s likes and dislikes, his stylistic and even political sympathies, come through, whether by accident or design. His aversion to, for instance, Nobel laureate immunologist (and now neuroscientist) Gerald Edelman and the late Sir Karl Popper, philosopher of science, contrasts sharply with his deference to paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and mathematician Roger Penrose.

But then, these are simply opinions. What of the author’s claim of an ongoing abandonment of the great goal of science, which was to obtain not just answers but the answer? Horgan seems to have two main reasons for making this claim. First, he accepts the well-worn argument that we are in an era of diminishing returns from research, a view lately bolstered by the assertion that in seeking a "theory of everything" particle physics has finally overreached: neither "superstrings" nor any other mathematization of what is already mathematical, hence untestable, is likely to produce the answer.

Second, Horgan deduces from interviews with unquestionably powerful minds (and from meetings in which they assemble for metascience and bagels) that these good people are troubled. Asked whether they anticipate the end of science, many of them squirm but do not deny it.

Yet engaging as these glimpses of angstridden greatness may be, they are not fully persuasive. As Horgan properly notes, greatness has often announced that its work is done—only to be proved wrong. Granted, natural selection was a 19th-century idea, as were atoms made mostly of empty space. But genetics, apart from Mendel’s pioneering insight, is a 20th-century story. So is the fusion of genetics with biochemistry, natural history, ecology, development, and earth history. The mystery of quantum gravity may or may not be solved, but whole territories of physics remain unexplored.

Finally, a certain gloom is bound to settle over any business that has grown exponentially and must now grow, if at all, linearly. Ask the brilliant, egotistical leaders in any field if their own achievements are likely to be trumped; most will stroke their chins and think not. Interview the youngest, most up-and-coming scientific geniuses, and you will get a different answer.


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