Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Book Review: The End of Science

John Horgan summarizes his conversations with dozens of top physicists, philosophers, and other scientists, trying to get an answer to the question: What will happen once we have "The Answer" to everything?

Of course, this question presupposes that there is such an answer (or a collection of answers), and Horgan makes no attempt to be anything but biased in his view that there is such an answer, and that the peak of scientific progress has already passed. He claims that since the discovery of quantum mechanics and relativity, and to a lesser extent evolution, the double helix, and a few other developments, very few has occurred in science. Furthermore, that which has occurred has mostly been "minor details". There has been no Grand Unified Theory in physics over the past 50 years.

However, his examples of "the end of science" are carefully cherry-picked and calculated to be able to support his hypothesis. The data for relativity and quantum mechanics came as a result of the massive increase in the scale of observations caused by improvements in telescopes and microscopes, which are a continuous trend from Galileo to around the 1940s, where we hit Heisenburg uncertainty limits on one scale, and a sheer lack of observable data on the other scale. At some point, Moore's Law will break, and computer capacity increases will taper off. However, he generally ignores mathematics and social sciences, and says very little about chemistry as well. While these can be chalked up to the specific interviews he has conducted, it is more than coincidental that he focuses most on the few topics where the end of science may come sooner rather than later or never.

Horgan claims that there are no "surprises" forthcoming in science. He cites relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution as "surprises", but doubts that these will be forthcoming in the future. This is the silliest of logical errors; if it were expected to occur, it wouldn't be a surprise. He dismisses out of hand that the solution to "dark matter" might be something unexpected, though I cannot imagine how it could be explained purely by "details".

The book doesn't support the end of science very well, and some of his claims on where "the end of progress" lies seem out of date after only about 10 years (especially relating to AI and computing). However, the discussions with various scientists are generally fascinating. One scientist suggests that while bacteria and viruses come from the fabric of the universe, AIDS must come from a research lab, while another suggests that environmentalism is a plot to impoverish black children. Many of them are based on his interviews with Scientific American, and this book is worth reading solely on these accounts.

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