Has the era of major scientific breakthroughs run its course? Lord Kelvin famously claimed at the end of the 19th century that future scientific achievements would be found “in the sixth place of decimals.” Just a few years later, Albert Einstein proposed the theory of relativity and forever changed our understanding of physics. Science writer John Horgan caused a minor stir in the 1990s by arguing that science has reached its limits now that we have a basic understanding of the physical world, from the nanoscale to the universal.
That’s true for matter, agrees James Le Fanu, a columnist for Britain’s Telegraph, but our understanding of life still leaves something wanting. If more breakthroughs are made, they will be in clarifying two of the greatest mysteries: how it is that the double helix of DNA gives rise to vast biodiversity, and how the electronic impulses in our brains create an individual—personality, free will, memories. “At a time when cosmologists can reliably infer what happened in the first few minutes of the birth of the universe, and geologists can measure the movements of continents to the nearest centimeter, it seems extraordinary that geneticists can’t tell us why humans are so different from flies, and neuroscientists are unable to clarify how we recall a telephone number,” Le Fanu muses.
Life is much harder to study than matter. For one thing, it’s “immeasurably more complex.” Think of a fly and a pebble of the same size. A common fly is “billions upon billions upon billions” of times more complicated. Life’s most basic units—cells—are at work in every living thing, converting nutrients into tissue, repairing, and reproducing, and each cell is a tiny fraction of the size of the smallest machines ever built. Another wrinkle: Many of the mysteries of life produce no tangible evidence. What do you “look” at if you want to study thought, memory, or belief? The assumption that science could one day probe such inscrutabilities “remains an assumption,” Le Fanu writes, as, “strictly speaking, they fall outside the domain of the methods of science to investigate and explain.”
Times are flush for Big Science. Biomedical research alone is a $100 billion industry, dwarfing the gross domestic products of a dozen countries. The quantity of research is astonishing, with many journals publishing around 100,000 pages of articles each year. Yet the results have been “disappointing.” The Venter Institute’s announcement last spring that it had managed to create “artificial life” may have grabbed headlines, but Le Fanu remains unmoved. “Fabricating a basic toolkit of genes and inserting them into a bacterium—at a cost of $40 million and 10 years’ work—was technologically ingenious, but the result does less than what the simplest forms of life have been doing for free and in a matter of seconds for the past three billion years.”
For all its money, Big Science is not supporting those who are “discontent with prevailing theory,” and could make history-altering discoveries. The end of science won’t come when there’s nothing left to discover, but “when the geeks have taken over and the free thinkers [have been] vanquished.”