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The End-of-Science Bandwagon Is Getting Crowded

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I’m getting worried, again, about the future of “pure science,” which seeks knowledge for its own sake rather than for practical applications, like thermonuclear bombs and erectile-dysfunction treatments. I was also worried in 1996, when I argued in The End of Science that pure science might be entering an era of diminishing returns.

One source of my current concern is a freshman composition course I’m teaching at Stevens Institute of Technology. Last week, my students read an old Michio Kaku piece, which explains-celebrates dark matter, super strings, cosmic strings (remember them?), inflation and other physics phantasms. (Kaku’s essay is one of many fun, science-y selections in our textbook, A World of Ideas: Essential Readings for College Writers, edited by Lee Jacobus.)

After my students and I chewed over Kaku’s style, we switched to substance. I asked if taxpayers should pay for research on particle physics and cosmology when the results will probably have no practical payoff. Out of 25 students, 24 said no, and the lone hold-out was ambivalent; he would support the research if the economy were stronger.*

The students didn’t want to fork over a slice of their future earnings for research that would not provide a “return on investment,” as one put it. Knowledge of what the universe is made of, where it came from and where it’s headed didn’t count as an adequate “return.” “The government shouldn’t pay for things that don’t directly benefit us,” one person said, as others nodded. “Let some billionaire support that stuff if he wants to,” someone else chimed in.

Around the same time, I was checking out responses to a question that science-book agent John Brockman just posted “What should we be worried about?” Brockman has been posing questions like this to his stable of professional eggheads, or Edgeheads, annually since 1998. Reading over responses to Brockman’s question, I was struck by how many Edgeheads are fretting over the future of particle physics in particular and pure science in general. Here are edited excerpts from

Lisa Randall, physicist: “I worry that people will gradually stop the major long-term investments in research that are essential if we are to answer difficult (and often quite abstract) scientific questions… The applications are not obvious so there has to be an underlying belief that finding the answers to deep and significant questions about how the universe evolved, how we evolved, what we are made of, what space is made of, and how things work is important. The ability to find answers to these questions is one of the characteristics that makes human beings unique and gives meaning to our lives. Giving this up for short-term ends would ultimately be a tragedy. In my specific field of particle physics, everyone is worried. I don’t say that lightly. I’ve been to two conferences within the last week where the future was a major topic of discussion and I’m at another one where it’s on the agenda. Many ideas are presented but my colleagues and I certainly worry whether experiments will happen.”

Peter Woit, mathematical physicist: “During the 20th century the search for a theory of how the physical world works at its most fundamental level went from one success to another… After centuries of great progress, moving towards ever-deeper understanding of the universe we live in, we may be entering a new kind of era. Will intellectual progress become just a memory, with an important aspect of human civilization increasingly characterized by an unfamiliar and disturbing stasis? This unfortunately seems to becoming something worth worrying about.”

Keith Devlin, mathematician: “Are we about to see advances in mathematics come to an end? Until last year, I would have said no. Now I am not so sure. Given the degree to which the advances in science, engineering, technology, and medicine that created our modern world have all depended on advances in mathematics, if advances in mathematics were to come to an end, then it’s hard to see anything ahead for society other than stagnation, if not decline.”

Steve Giddings, physicist: “[W]e face a crisis within the deepest foundations of physics. The only way out seems to involve profound revision of fundamental physical principles… The current problems at the foundations link to multiple big questions—and I fear it will be no small feat to resolve them.”

Lawrence Krauss, physicist: “There may be… new limits looming on our ultimate ability to probe nature—made manifest because of the truly remarkable successes of physical theory and experiment in the past 50 years—due to the accident of the circumstances in which we find ourselves living, which could, at least in principle, change the way fundamental science may progress in the future… Perhaps then, at the extremes of scale empirical science will reach its limits, and we will be reduced to arguing about what is plausible, rather than testing our ideas… I should conclude by stressing I do not believe that any of these possible limits will lead to the end of science itself, or even the end of physics, as some naysayers have proposed in the past. There are enough remarkable and perplexing aspects of the universe we can measure to keep us going for a very long time.”

To this naysayer, Krauss sounds like a man whistling past the graveyard.

I was mulling over the Edgehead comments when someone sent me a link to a Nature essay that was like the rotten cherry on a sundae of gloom. The title, “Scientific genius is extinct,” is misleading. Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist who studies scientific creativity, doesn’t claim that modern scientists aren’t as smart as their predecessors. He suggests, rather, that revolutionary discoveries are less likely today because scientists have already discovered so much.

“Our theories and instruments now probe the earliest seconds and farthest reaches of the universe,” he writes, “and we can investigate the tiniest of life forms and the shortest-lived of subatomic particles.” Hence scientists will produce no more “momentous leaps,” ideas that are truly surprising rather than “just extensions of already-established, domain-specific expertise.”

“Future advances are likely to build on what is already known rather than alter the foundations of knowledge,” Simonton adds. “One of the biggest recent scientific accomplishments is the discovery of the Higgs boson—the existence of which was predicted decades ago.”

Compare the concerns of Simonton and the Edgeheads to what I wrote 17 years ago in The End of Science. I argued that “given how far science has already come, and given the physical, social and cognitive limits constraining further research, [pure] science is unlikely to make any significant additions to the knowledge it has already generated. There will be no more great revelations in the future comparable to those bestowed upon us by Darwin or Einstein or Watson and Crick.”

Edgeheads and other pessimists, welcome to the end-of-science bandwagon.

*Clarification/confession: After polling my freshman comp class, I asked 40 students in two other classes whether they thought particle physics and cosmology should be supported by tax dollars, and about 1/3 said yes. Perhaps students in my freshman comp class were more hostile to theoretical physics because they had to read Michio Kaku’s essay–plus two other assigned pieces, my recent critique of his gee-whizzy proselytizing for particle physics and our $1,000 bet on the prospects for a unified theory.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. curiouswavefunction 7:54 am 02/4/2013

    I wrote about Simonton’s essay on Sci Am yesterday.

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  2. 2. rloldershaw 11:37 am 02/4/2013

    Everything points to the need for a major paradigm shift in physics.

    We do not need bigger colliders. We need new ideas and open minds to honestly and objectively compare them with observational knowledge.

    Robert L. Oldershaw
    Discrete Scale Relativity/Fractal Cosmology

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  3. 3. lump1 12:38 pm 02/4/2013

    It truly is a worrying sign that even your students oppose the funding of basic research. I would understand grumpy old people opposing it, because they’ve lost all human curiosity in their old age. Young people, however, shouldn’t be so jaded. I can only hope that this attitude will change once America’s political rivals ramp up their basic research programs.

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  4. 4. Quantumburrito 1:28 pm 02/4/2013

    Look, young people are opposing basic research because we are doing a crappy job of teaching science in middle and high school. The only way the public – both young and old – is going to fund basic science is if we make it respectable again, sort of like we did in the post-Sputnik area. As for the “end of science” scenario, it seems to assume that fundamental research is the only truly important or interesting research. I profoundly disagree. Most scientists who tinker in the lab on a daily basis could care less about the end of science. Even if we know everything about elementary particles, it does not mean it’s any easier to cure cancer or solve our energy problems. These challenges will engage us into the foreseeable future.

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  5. 5. M Tucker 1:35 pm 02/4/2013

    John, put me down on the side of continued government funding of particle physics and cosmology. I also do not see an end to science just yet. We still have more questions to answer and I don’t think it is possible to predict where the next “great revelation” will come from. We have come a very long way in the past 120 years but I don’t think it necessarily heralds the end of science.

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  6. 6. outsidethebox 1:41 pm 02/4/2013

    Should we really be surprised? For a couple of generations now, academia has been increasingly ripping off society in general and its students in particular. That there is now some push back is only to be expected.

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  7. 7. jtdwyer 2:20 pm 02/4/2013

    “… Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist who studies scientific creativity, doesn’t claim that modern scientists aren’t as smart as their predecessors. He suggests, rather, that revolutionary discoveries are less likely today because scientists have already discovered so much.”

    Yeah, we’ve pretty much discovered everything again – so much that we’re now inventing new things to discover!

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  8. 8. vulvox 3:04 pm 02/4/2013

    are they following their party politics about downsizing government when they come those conclusions? I’m a and inventor- we have to keep basic science research as well
    as practical applications or new applications will dry up eventually from lack of new ideas and understanding at a deeper level.

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  9. 9. RobLL 3:29 pm 02/4/2013

    Did you ask how much we should spend? At this point I don’t see going ahead with a newer bigger better accelerator. But we need to do our share to keep CERN going. We need to keep the basic research space program going. We really need better and more weather satellites.

    Older no angry male

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  10. 10. Mythusmage 3:44 pm 02/4/2013

    I blame it on people such as Chekov and (Karl) Marx, and their idiot idea that something has to be useful to be of any worth. Sez who? A forest glade has value even when it just stands there looking majestic.

    And besides, when we have no real idea, beyond the existence of a thing called “gravity” just exactly why things fall (may have something to do with the object descending to a lower energy state, but I don’t know), we can hardly say we have reached the end of science.

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  11. 11. mbabcock 4:13 pm 02/4/2013

    Agree with mythusmage. Pronouncements that we are near the end of knowledge are laughable and short-sighted. Gunter Stent made a similar arguement once DNA was discovered and the genetic code cracked. Knowledge never ends. Someone described knowledge as an island oasis which expands with each new discovery. And the shoreline’s edge of mystery only enlarges the more we learn.

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  12. 12. rugeirn 7:00 pm 02/4/2013

    With respect to funding: I come from the arts world, where funding is a constant problem. If the world of science thinks it can rely almost solely and basically indefinitely on government to fund basic research, I submit the world of science is in for a rude awakening. Look to science only as one leg of three; the other two being corporate and private support. The one undergrad is right in principle: there are billionaires out there who can do a major job of supporting basic science. As for corporate support, let not Bell Labs and Palo Alto Research Park (Xerox) be forgotten.

    But none of that will happen unless scientists gear up and start making it happen. Tossing yet another proposal into a government in-box is not going to get it done.

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  13. 13. rugeirn 7:57 pm 02/4/2013

    Here is what I’m talking about. SciAm July 2012 p. 50.

    “As we were struggling with this disappointing stall, Mark Schwartz, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs (Asia), invited me to breakfast with him at a hotel in New York City. Schwartz and his wife, Lisa, had begun to fund some of MGH’s and Harvard’s efforts to train scientists and clinicians in Africa to help tackle the AIDS crisis. During our meeting, Schwartz asked me what else I was working on. While answering, I expressed my frustration over the elite controller project and noted that I saw it as holding key information to guide our path forward. Schwartz immediately perked up when I explained the logic for the study. Why didn’t he and his wife fund it, he asked. To my amazement, by the time we parted the Schwartzs had made a commitment of $2.5 million over the next five years to launch our study of elite HIV controllers. The funds would be spent to recruit patients from across the country, and we would point to their successful enrollment to convince other funders to pay for the genetic analyses.”

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  14. 14. babby 8:00 pm 02/4/2013

    We certainly are nowhere near knowing everything about our world, let alone our universe. It takes an immense amount of hubris to think it’s time to quit our investigations now.

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  15. 15. David Gage 8:17 pm 02/4/2013

    It is terribly sad that very few of us understand that R&D or should I say learning something new always has many non-related benefits. Look at space travel or read the book “Connections” to find that for almost every new project there are other things developed or learned that have direct benefits for the current generation let alone that which awaits those who will receive even more in the future. The technological benefits related to the James Webb replacement for Hubble are already being felt and that is before this new and better R&D machine is even completed. Those who are properly educated will know the commercial benefits related to learning more. The technologies used in the LHC are also proof of this and should be pointed out to all of those who fear learning more.

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  16. 16. billlee42 11:52 pm 02/4/2013

    Agree whole heartedly with Mythusmage & mbabcock. Pronouncements of the end of science are nonsense! What about topics like the nature of consciousness and quantum computing? Of course it is possible that government and/or the public in some countries may not want to fund basic research as much as they have in the past but an assumption this will be the prospect for the long term is, I think, unfounded.

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  17. 17. kienhua68 5:47 am 02/5/2013

    We could use more science to combat the effects of previous science.

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  18. 18. christinaak 9:52 am 02/5/2013

    Quantum behavior is not yet understood, and much of cosmology is at best speculative. We are definitely in need of a paradigm shift that will rival, if not surpass, any that have taken place thus far in the history of science. A model that describes the underlying reality (that Einstein correctly believed exists) that explains quantum behavior will also supply the physics needed to rehabilitate the field of cosmology, as well.

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  19. 19. jackvandijk 10:06 am 02/5/2013

    I object to the comment of lump1, it is a lumpy comment. I maybe 75 (last I checked), but interested in everything and have not enough time to read it all.

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  20. 20. darklight_413 5:32 pm 02/5/2013

    Yeah, we’ve discovered almost everything. We now hold meaningful conversations with other inhabitants of this planet, you can fit the power of a nuclear reactor in the palm of your hand, heart disease and cancer have been eradicated, world hunger is no longer, fresh water is everywhere, and we completely control the weather. What else is there? Oh, you mean we haven’t done those things? My bad. I guess there ARE a few things we don’t know.

    We have become a society of takers. Not in the sense of “entitlements” but in the sense that if we don’t all get fabulously wealthy from the invention of some Earth-changing invention, the Luddites or the religious extremists come out of the closet and want to shut anything down that closely resembles science. Meanwhile, colleges are turning out graduates that know nothing and bankrupting the country over greed.

    Money is god and if we don’t get a 1000% return that’s immediately apparent, we through science out with the baby AND the bathwater. People need to wake up. We’re on the verge of slipping into another Dark Age where everyone will be toting assault rifles and burning scientists at the stake for witchcraft.

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  21. 21. Prairie Dog 11:25 am 02/6/2013

    Although a little overstated & in inflammatory terms, darklight_413 is basically correct. It’s about the money, the ROI, especially the writer’s students’ ROI: “Don’t spend (my) tax money on science that produces no ROI (for me).” Worse, the most motivated young scientists – e.g., winners of Intel science prizes – so often abandon STEM because there’s no perceived career or profit in it, the writer’s results aren’t surprising.

    I also have other doubts about the students’ understanding of science. Maybe 25 years ago I read an article in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. An astronomy professor asked his students about the scientific status of astrology. Something like a third of them thought astrology was a science, and about 25% said astrology was equal to astronomy in scientific importance. Have things improved since then? Ans: Not with 40% of the American people believing in creation/”intelligent design.”

    With attitudes and understanding like that it’s no wonder science for the sake of knowledge, with no obvious short-term ROI, is considered a waste of tax money.

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  22. 22. Squeedle 4:47 pm 02/6/2013

    I have to say that when I was a graduate student working at LAMPF and later, Fermilab, I asked myself the same questions. What I saw were hundreds of millions of dollars going toward research that had comparatively little benefit to the human race, creates a lot of radioactive and toxic waste, and uses unbelievable amounts of energy and other resources. This is a world of 7Bn people, which is heating up, getting more populated and possibly facing massive die-off of ourselves and other species. Believe me, I loved particle physics. But while I think science for its own sake is important, it’s not AS important as solving these other problems. Find ways to make these experiments smaller and less costly, particularly to the environment. Do more theoretical research. I don’t think this means we should shut down all our accelerators, but frankly I don’t approve of building new ones, and I’m in favor of reducing use of the existing ones. We should be focusing big brains and big money on saving human beings as much as we possibly can.

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  23. 23. Andrei Kirilyuk 2:07 pm 02/7/2013

    The situation in modern science is much worse than this. The real problem is that those “researchers” are looking only for money and not for the truth any more, despite “insisting” on the opposite. Otherwise they would change their evidently fruitless subjects and methods for something else already long ago. By a strange coincidence, the entire official, intrinsically corrupt peer-review system (the organised crime of knowledge) favors exclusively just that kind of “science”.

    As to knowledge extension itself, it does contain a few interesting “trifles” to be explored. Like the real Creator or the true purpose of Humanity. And those are quite practically important problems today, in reality the most important ones, whatever the “leading scientists” and their “critics” might assume. However, real modern problems for human intelligence need quite another motivation in order to be even recognised as such. The point with science is about humans, not about useless technical “models” or their (even useful) applications.

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  24. 24. m3mann 12:13 am 02/8/2013

    Nor sure that it’s the end of science, but the extraordinary
    challenges that human beings face to make the next exploratory leap
    into the cosmos that makes many people lose their fascination for it.
    If it’s a multigenerational effort to get to the nearest places…….

    And it’s not like the age of exploration and industrialization where
    one had natural resources waiting for you as you sailed or
    walked your way across the earth.

    Skimming a living from interstellar dust is likely possible but not
    the same as “living off the land” in an earthly wilderness.

    So pioneering is stifled a bit and with it one kind of curiosity.

    The owner of SpaceX knows that we must expand beyond the earth and
    hopes to make some progress in this generation on figuring out how
    humankind might be able to colonize at least Mars and learn how to
    “live off the land”.

    So with exploration so difficult many people lose their immediate
    interest in what cosmology might do for them.

    When the rationalists overtook the philosophers, Einstein saying that
    he was only trying to theorize what he could then measure, things
    changed. We learned more and then we crashed into a wall. The wall was
    our measurement tool broadband energy (light). It is “common
    knowledge” now that at interstellar distances and with the cosmic
    speed limit we aren’t going anywhere soon. And where early
    explorers expected to get home a couple of times in a lifetime, it’s not so any more.

    So personal exploratory curiosity has taken a huge hit. And those
    who have a “pure interest” in knowledge are far smaller in number.

    So here’s the thing. Most of the universe we cannot measure with
    light. That’s why we call it dark (energy and matter). It might be
    more correct to call it transparent energy and matter since light
    scoots through it without any apparent interaction.

    Since light is our measuring tool, we are blind to things light
    doesn’t interact with which turns out to be most things.

    So if we are to stoke the fires of exploration we need a measurement
    tool to “see” dark matter and energy and find out what most of the
    universe is up to.

    If you are looking for a breakthrough into renewed curiosity, find the
    new tool that interacts with dark energy and matter. For on the Dark
    Side may lie the secret to escaping the bounds of earth and truly
    giving humankind a cosmological legacy.

    Not that YODA recommends we
    go to the Dark Side……….

    Best wishes in the quest.


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  25. 25. Chris Miller 5:37 pm 02/8/2013

    I wonder if anyone explained to the students how little science costs in comparison to other government expenditure. As a UK adult, my contribution to CERN is about $3 annually – I wish all the rest of my taxes delivered equivalent benefits!
    Research into pure science has a centuries-long history of delivering unanticipated benefits far outweighing any costs. What if unification of gravity and quantum mechanics delivers a warp drive or matter transporters or anti-gravity – or (much more likely) some practical effect that no-one could possibly have expected?

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  26. 26. bucketofsquid 6:10 pm 02/8/2013

    Those who fail to fund basic research will be slaughtered by the weapons made by those who do fund basic research.

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  27. 27. jack.123 8:02 pm 02/10/2013

    I think the best is yet to come,there are so many unanswered questions.The joining of particle and wave mechanics plus gravity has yet to be done.When this happens,huge breakthroughs in propulsion will occur,that will outshine all others before it.Advances in the understanding entanglement will change the world even more so.

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  28. 28. Dr. Strangelove 9:14 pm 02/10/2013

    Horgan, tell your students science is for the intelligent and creative. So we understand why they think that way.

    Tell Simonton to study the history of physics. By 1895 physicists thought they already know all of physics. Then came a series of unexpected discoveries that marked the birth of modern physics: X-ray, radioactivity, electron, alpha, beta & gamma rays, quantum energy, photoelectric effect, special relativity. All these happened in a span of 10 yrs!

    Our modern technologies are built on pure science:
    Computer – Turing machine
    Electric generator & motor – Faraday’s experiments
    Space flight – Newtonian mechanics
    TV – experiments on electron & cathode ray tube
    Nuclear power – nuclear physics
    Radio – Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory
    4-stroke engine – Otto cycle
    Steam engine – Rankine cycle
    Jet engine – Brayton cycle
    Etc., etc.

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  29. 29. Daniel35 12:08 am 02/11/2013

    In an era when runaway population explosion is causing economic collapse, peak oil and climate change, I’d think especially clear thinking students would want more concern for dealing with the next few decades.

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  30. 30. Colinklein 10:49 pm 02/11/2013

    I couldn’t agree more, John. Not only is this a problem in general but in specific fields. Stem cell research is a great example. We’ve begun researching in an impractical amount of directions, seemingly forgetting what the original question was. I’ve read about nutrient-based compositions that can induce the growth of stem cells (Chinese scientist Rongxiang Xu). Is that too practical for us?

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  31. 31. Bob Jones 2:07 pm 02/12/2013

    “Last week, my students read an old Michio Kaku piece, which explains-celebrates dark matter, super strings, cosmic strings (remember them?), inflation and other physics phantasms.”

    You suggest that dark matter is an idea without empirical support when in fact it is a hypothesis supported by many lines of evidence. The hypothesis of dark matter is an attempt to resolve serious discrepancies in our observations of distant galaxies, and it is based on precise measurements of the rotational speeds of galaxies and gravitational lensing.

    Likewise, inflation is not a phantasm as you suggest but a serious hypothesis which has accumulated an impressive amount of experimental support from measurements of CMB anisotropy. It also resolves a number of problems in Big Bang cosmology by explaining the flatness, homogeneity, and isotropy of the observable universe.

    Finally, while it is true that there has not been any strong empirical evidence that string theory is a correct fundamental theory, the formal apparatus of string theory has proven extremely useful for solving all sorts of concrete problems in quantum field theory. It is nowadays a standard tool for studying quantum chromodynamics at strong coupling, and it has applications in nuclear and condensed matter physics.

    I can understand being turned off by Michio Kaku’s popular writing, but you have to be incredibly ignorant to think that the ideas listed here are all phantasms…

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  32. 32. gantonv 10:44 pm 04/14/2013

    Great to hear your current views on these issues. There are many pieces of the changes occurring in fundamental science. I think your 1996 book confused several of them.
    The most important piece of the current situation is summarized in one of Sean Carroll’s blog sequences:

    This doesn’t mean there will not be revolutionary breakthroughs. I would guess chances are better than 50% that someone will figure out what dark matter is during this century and that this will produce a revolution in our understanding of fundamental physics. It just won’t have any practical or engineering applications for many centuries.

    But the quest for scientific understanding of how the human brain is intelligent has potential to create a revolution much greater than Einstein or Watson and Crick. Fundamental physics is over as a source of engineering technology. But applied science has only just begun. (The choice of the phrase ‘pure science’ is sure to confuse the situation. What is ‘impure’ about neuroscience or turbulence research?)

    Research funding agencies are already well aware of this situation and government funding for particle physics and astrophysics is much smaller than funding for medicine, biology, chemistry, condensed matter physics, and earth sciences.

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