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Does Growing Time Lag for Nobels Portend End of Fundamental Discoveries in Physics?

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

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Some idiot over at National Geographic just wrote a column titled “Science Is Running Out of Things to Discover,” and the commenters are hammering him.

Yeah, I’m the idiot, and I thought I’d use this blog for a follow-up.

Richard Feynman, shown receiving Nobel Prize in 1965, warned in 1967 that the era of fundamental discovery in physics must end. Recent trends in Nobel Prizes seem to corroborate his prediction.

First of all, notwithstanding the headline, my National Geographic column is really about physics, not science as a whole. The news peg is a short letter in Nature on how it’s taking longer and longer for scientists to get Nobel Prizes for their work, especially in physics. The time lag is increasing so sharply that by the end of this century no one will live long enough to be honored. Funny, huh?

A National Geographic editor asked the letter’s lead author, Santo Fortunato, what the trend meant, and he suggested that science is “scratching the bottom of the barrel in fundamental science” and “running out of fundamental discoveries.” That reminded the editor of my 1996 book The End of Science, so he invited me to riff on the Nature piece, which I did. The Nobel trend in physics, I argued, supports my book’s assertion that further research will yield “no more great revelations or revolutions, but only incremental, diminishing returns.”

If you still doubt this claim after reading my National Geographic piece, look at the physics Nobels over the past few decades. With one exception, the work consists of contributions to long-established theories in particle physics, condensed-matter physics, astrophysics and cosmology–as well as the invention of technologies such as neutron spectroscopy and integrated circuits.

This is what philosopher Thomas Kuhn calls “normal science,” which extends and reinforces rather than challenging or transcending existing paradigms. The lone exception—and by far the most thrilling scientific revelation of the past few decades–is the acceleration of the universe, discovered in the late 1990s and honored with a Nobel in 2011. This is the kind of anomaly that could lead to a paradigm shift in physics, but so far it remains just an odd twist of big bang cosmology.

One crucial assumption of my end-of-science argument is that physics has actually figured out, to an astonishing degree, how reality works, and so has become a victim of its own success. I don’t subscribe to the hard-core postmodern position that all scientific claims are actually just “stories” subject to endless rejection and revision.

But I have high standards of evidence, as do, for the most part, the Nobel judges. Ambitious physicists have sought to transcend current paradigms with conjectures involving strings, branes, multiverses and other exotic eidolons, but none of these speculations has been empirically confirmed—or is likely to be, for reasons that I’ve spelled out previously. (See also my comments on whether recent observations of cosmic microwaves confirm inflation, a theory of cosmic creation.)

I’m far from alone in raising these concerns about physics. Last year, physicist Lawrence Krauss, while rejecting my claim that science is ending, conceded that 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.”

If Krauss doesn’t impress you, how about Richard Feynman? In his 1967 book The Character of Physical Law Feynman wrote: “We are very lucky to live in an age in which we are still making discoveries. It is like the discovery of America—you only discover it once. The age in which we live is the age in which we are discovering the fundamental laws of nature, and that day will never come again. It is very exciting, it is marvelous, but this excitement will have to go. Of course in the future there will be other interests. There will be the interest of the connection of one level of phenomena to another—phenomena in biology and so on, or, if you are talking about exploration, exploring other planets, but there will not be the same things we are doing now.”

One final point. Some National Geographic commenters said I reminded them of two failed prophets of the late 19th century: the U.S. patent official who wanted to shut down the patent office because everything had been invented; and the British physicist Lord Kelvin, who said that physics was finished. I debunked these apocryphal tales in The End of Science. I’ll offer details if anyone wants them.

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. Lacota 1:19 pm 04/11/2014

    Not sure what your point is. Do you get an award for being the first to predict the end? Perhaps the greatest discoveries of science are behind us and we have picked all the low hanging fruit. But physics isn’t the only science. And there is still a great deal of work going on. May I point out that we have discovered the higgs boson and microwave background polarization since the last time you told us it was all over. Why not wait until it really is over, to say it’s over?

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  2. 2. M Tucker 2:46 pm 04/11/2014

    I am not too concerned about who will get awarded a Nobel Prize. The committee will find someone to honor and they have a spotty track record with regard to prizes for fundamental discoveries. Who was awarded the prize for the discovery of the proton? No one! Likewise the gamma ray. JJ Thompson discovered the electron but his award was for the conduction of electricity by gases and not for his tireless work and calculation of the electron mass and charge. How many awards were given for experimentally arriving at more precise measurements of fundamental constants? Surprisingly it is more than one might think. That kind of work is still going on.

    Fundamental discoveries are still to be made, dark matter for one, and what the Nobel Committee does with the yearly awards may, or may not, honor them.

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  3. 3. jpdickey 3:59 pm 04/11/2014

    Being an old man, I never cease to be amazed at the ability of men to believe they have reached the pinnacle of knowledge in their field.

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  4. 4. Patrice Ayme 4:16 pm 04/11/2014

    To predict something, one ought to have reasons valid in the future. Here two reasons are in evidence: 1) the delay between idea and Nobel is increasing, and, 2), as Feynman said, one discovers America only once (actually it was three or four times, but never mind).

    Neither do have any theoretical validity looking forward: both reasons are empirical, and look backwards.

    For example Haroche got the Nobel for the new method of seeing light, without disturbing it, with atoms. Such fundamental Quantum technique could well bring a revolution, tomorrow, if a deviation from the rules of the Copenhagen Interpretation of physics is detected.

    Ditto for the global entanglement experiments. Quantum entanglement has been partly checked up to 15 kilometers. But certainly not up to 15 parsecs. Any deviation, any time, from the Copenhagen Interpretation would shatter all of fundamental physics. It would not make it completely false, it would just indicate another universe of knowledge beckons.

    As the present Standard Model of High Energy Physics explains no more than 5% of the mass-energy out there, one can guess that twenty times more than what we know remains to be discovered in the rough sketch of what is to be known in physics that we have.

    Lord Kelvin thought we understood 95% of physics, at least, and that there were only “two little black clouds at the horizon” (the UV catastrophe and the Blackbody radiation). To explain them, Planck suggested in 1899-1900, the Quantum emission of radiation, and his constant.

    Now we know, for sure, that we understand just a little patch, no more than 5%.

    In pure theory, non linear effect are a mystery, from hypersonic flight, to thermonuclear fusion, to the Navier-Stokes equation… Thus begging the question that may be all this non-linearity, if it were sorted out, would have a huge impact on the foundations of Quantum theory.

    Physics is not finished, it barely got started.

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  5. 5. singing flea 4:18 pm 04/11/2014

    It seems to me that there are more unanswered questions in Physics than answered ones. Let’s start with defining gravity and dark matter. Then we can move on to parallel universes, worm holes and breaking down the paradoxes that are found in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

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  6. 6. Prajnadhyana 6:17 pm 04/11/2014

    Assuming your premiss to be true is that necessarily a bad thing? Even if we have figured out all of the basics, there’s still plenty of details to suss out. Let’s not ignore the whole field of Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Seems like there is still plenty of unknowns in that area.

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  7. 7. Shade1974 6:23 pm 04/11/2014

    If almost everything we know and understand is related to “normal” matter makes up only 5% of the universe, it stands to reason that we have a lot of ground to cover before we understand it all. But even if the scope of all known physics is ultimately knowable the application of that knowledge is nearly boundless. The comparison would be to suggest that because one has filled out the periodic table that there is no further reason to give out Nobel prizes in chemistry. Further, the parts that we don’t know become vastly more difficult to discover. What’s inside a black hole? What happens when you create a baby universe? Etc. The challenge is, while we can always hypothesize about the known unknowns, we just don’t know at all about the unknown unknowns. I just read recently about new four quark combinations of matter that don’t conform to the standard model of physics and might also hint at yet another fundamental force. In the face of so much that we don’t know, I think we are just beginning to discover some really great stuff, and should not pronounce physics as dead just yet.

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  8. 8. ravisamson 8:38 pm 04/11/2014

    Shade1974: If my memory serves me correctly, I think it was Carl Sagan who informed us, our universe is a black hole. It makes perfect sense to me. So now you do know what is inside one black hole.

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  9. 9. ravisamson 8:51 pm 04/11/2014

    Patrice Ayme: Does gravity exist? If so where is the gravitron, another Noble prize for you if you can prove it exists.

    More importantly: Does time exist or is it a concept created by lifeforms? You have heard of the expression “If a tree falls in a forest….

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  10. 10. YangHui 11:42 pm 04/11/2014

    While I’m obviously just an armchair observer, it’s pretty clear to me that the worldview created by Physics is still largely incomplete.
    Rather, the time lag stems from the fact that more and more sophisticated theories are becoming harder and harder to verify, so there is a growing gap between when a theory is postulated and when it is proved or disproved. As a result, men like Higgs who create elegant theories that remain unproven for decades are becoming the norm in Physics, and a natural consequence is that they don’t receive their accolades if/until they are vindicated.
    I’m not sure if this is a natural consequence of entering deeper and more subtle areas of the physical world, or relates to the specific methodology Physics uses, but either way, it doesn’t seem that we’re close to the end.

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  11. 11. openeyes999 3:50 am 04/12/2014

    Recent major discoveries in physics aside from the expansion of the universe: discovery of dark matter, discovery of dark energy, confirmation of higgs, confirmation of inflation (even if it goes against Horgan’s world view), discovery neutrinos have mass, discovery of black holes at centers of most galaxies, discoveries new states of matter.(BECs)

    Maybe some of the low hanging fruit has been picked, but it’s arrogant to assume we’re anywhere near the end of what can be discovered, especially with 95% of the mass and energy in the Universe we can detect a mystery to us, and especially given the leaps and bounds by which our instruments’ sensitivity is developing.

    Not long ago if you’d told someone you’d be able to tell the exact composition of a planet 1000 light years away they’d have laughed at you, now it’s easy. I’m sure ways will be found to test some of physics more exotic theories. (There are already proposals to test the multiverse by looking for evidence of collisions in the CMB)

    Imagine if scientists had Horgan’s attitude; many fewer discoveries would have been made with people thinking it’s all been done and not pushing the limits. Horgan has pet ideas that have often been shown to be wrong; he’s like the Dick Morris of science writers.

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  12. 12. Andrei Kirilyuk 8:45 am 04/12/2014

    The real problem with this discussion is that it’s missing a constructive solution exceeding, as it typically happens, the level of opponent views and thus solving the problem in the best possible way, by transition to a superior level of understanding (and living).

    Despite the fury of fanatic (and therefore blind) science believers, John Horgan is right, of course, in his basic estimates of modern state of (fundamental) science. Not only because the cited recent or expected “great discoveries” concern more (typically wrong) ways of calculations and interpretations, than the real nature of things, and not really because none of all those “dark matters”, “Higgs” artefacts and universe emergence details can change significantly the known basic structures and dynamics in principle, even if they add 95 % in formal quantities.

    The most convincing sign of saturation and degradation in science today is the catastrophically fallen social interest in science, related to the deep transformation from previous really progressive development (culminating somewhere in 60s) to a technically decorated decline now.

    In a scientifically promising, truly “knowledge-based” society science is life itself, its evident and omnipresent basis, the most desired occupation, most important news, etc. It’s enough to compare with modern situation to get the undeniable evidence. And no particular “Higgs” or “dark matter” speculations (deeply deficient as they are) can change this, even when they are presented as the greatest discoveries of all times. In reality they’re nothing but most expensive failures (details available, but they are not critically important).

    My objection to John’s attitude (but also actually to that of his opponents) is that assuming that he is basically right, one should not stop there, but try instead to find and develop another kind of knowledge and new progress it will guide. Indeed, if that, known kind of science is saturated, then what? The progress it has been guiding until recently also stops and is inevitably replaced by degradation (already done). And if there is no other “strong”, qualitatively new knowledge possibility, then it’s the end of not only science, but the entire civilised humanity as we knew it. It’s a bit more than all those pseudo-philosophical speculations about the internal state of science.

    Finding that qualitatively knew kind of knowledge, progress and civilisation (not only in technical details!) may appear “very difficult”, “too fantastic” and “practically impossible”, but the only real alternative is the total, already quickly advancing degradation… It means simply that the stakes are incredibly high and one should better accept the challenge, with its genuine, “apocalyptic” scale of change, at least those interested in the new creative (rather than emerging destructive) further development. This is the missing constructive solution.

    New knowledge features and details are not so inaccessible and could be discussed (e.g. ), but one should first become properly aware of the general situation criticality in order to have the necessary motivation.

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  13. 13. hcipro 9:59 am 04/12/2014

    It seems most commenters have missed a point. Reaching the “end of science” does not mean that we are able to explain everything. It is perfectly possible that science grinds to a halt while there are still phenomena that we can see but cannot understand, such as the 5% visible matter etc.
    Underlying this whole discussion is the question of who gets the money. Lots of scientists are so vehement about this question because they believe that if the public believes that science is over, the funding will dry up and they will have to teach high school for a living.
    That’s why the notion of unexplainable phenomena is actually a blessing. If the scientific community plays its cards right, it can continue to get funding for trying new, different approaches to explaining them in perpetuity.

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  14. 14. singing flea 1:14 pm 04/12/2014

    There is always going to be funding for science as long as we have military industrial complex. Societies based on social welfare like the indigenous tribes of the Amazon don’t care about science beyond the needs of the herbalists and witch doctors. Trillions more will be spent to investigate how to destroy nations with the knowledge we have already gained.

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  15. 15. carlos123 4:39 pm 04/12/2014

    I agree partially with the thesis exposed by the author: Fundamental physics is now developing in many cases independently of experiments. I remember a phD lecture where the student made different hypothesis about the nature of dark matter WIMPS. The tribunal asked if he had envisaged any experiment to discard between possibilities and he answered “non”, and even worse, he doubted this experiment was possible.

    Science without experimental verification is just an exercise of plausibility.

    The reasons behind the feeling of End of journey are probably we are arriving to the limits of our current conceptual set and to the limits of economically feasible experiments for some topics.

    However, I am confident about the renewal of old concepts as localism, particle, time, infinitesimal etc at the light of new experiments in quantum mechanism could boost again fundamental physics.

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  16. 16. Percival 1:27 am 04/13/2014

    Mr. Horgan, I’d like to let you know that you’re full of little green beans (as my mother would say). Science has not even neared the bottom of the barrel in making fundamental discoveries. Yes, we have quantum theory, the most staggeringly successful theory ever in terms of precision and broad applicability, but we still can’t marry up QM and gravitation. We still don’t know how many kinds of neutrino exist, or if there’s really only one kind that oscillates between three observable eigenstates as it propagates. We don’t know why quarks have fractional electric charges or why any particle has any of the charges (color, weak, EM) it does, really, or if mass is a sort of charge.

    What do you consider fundamental? Is discovering and compiling lists of conserved quantities (like particle charges) or symmetries of nature more fundamental than noticing a deep connection between the two concepts? Why does Noether’s Theorem work?

    Feynman was a very smart guy, but he was wrong. The many gaps and ugly seams in the standard model tell us we have NOT discovered the fundamental laws of nature.

    We’ve barely begun to pry the barrel open.

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  17. 17. dburress 12:01 am 04/15/2014

    Wile I agree with Horgan’s perception that we are seeing fewer really fundamental scientific breakthroughs than we used to, I would dispute the evidence he gave. Nobel prizes are commonly described as a “bottom of the barrel” phenomenon. If there is an ongoing increase in the number of innovations, while the quality distribution stays constant, there is increasingly stiff competition in each successive generation of innovations. Moreover it takes significant time to recognize which innovations are really important, and uncertainty about importance declines over time. If there were an increasingly large pool of worthy candidates then juries might prefer to look increasingly far back for a more certainly worthy awardee. Part of this model is certainly true: there really are an ever increasing number of working scientists producing an ever increasing number of innovations (measured e.g. by patents or “seminal”–i.e. highly cited–articles published).

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  18. 18. CaliCurious 12:27 am 04/17/2014

    We have not yet resolved the answer to how gravity works. This is and has been a major question to resolve. There are more. We have numerous complex theories such as “M” Theory that have attempted to do this. Even then dark matter and dark energy as well as super symmetry are still not wrapped up with a bow. We have a great deal to learn and this is not even a dent in the list of things the human mind has to discover. Science has a horizon far beyond man’s imagination. We are fortunate that in our lives we will see more discoveries of the mind.

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  19. 19. heilprin 8:58 pm 04/18/2014

    The issue here is deeper than the prospect that science is “scratching the bottom of the barrel in fundamental science” or “running out of fundamental discoveries” and is qualitatively different from the myopic predictions made by some 19th century leading scientists – it’s the realization that’s been dawning on quite a few for several decades now, that less than five hundred years after the birth of the scientific method, it can categorically concluded now that we live in a reality that ultimately lays beyond our capacity to either examine or comprehend. This realization must be heartbreaking to anyone who put his or her trust in science.

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  20. 20. heilprin 9:04 pm 04/18/2014

    The issue here is deeper than the prospect that science is “scratching the bottom of the barrel in fundamental science” or “running out of fundamental discoveries” and is qualitatively different from the myopic predictions made by some 19th century leading scientists – it’s the realization that’s been dawning on quite a few for several decades now, that less than five hundred years after the birth of the scientific method, it can be categorically concluded that we live in a reality that ultimately lays beyond our capacity to either examine or comprehend. This realization must be heartbreaking to anyone who put his or her trust in science.

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  21. 21. Percival 6:33 pm 04/20/2014

    #19- hellprin

    Why do you write that “…it can be categorically concluded that we live in a reality that ultimately lays beyond our capacity to either examine or comprehend”? That the relativities and quantum mechanics (for instance) aren’t amenable to our intuition shouldn’t be either surprising or disconcerting. Yes, we evolved to survive on the African savannah, and that’s the fundamental limit of our senses, but it is not the fundamental limit of our minds. The mere fact that we have had to invent SR, GR, and QM because of what we’d been able to examine of reality is a testament to our incredible overhead when it comes to intellectual capacity (pun intended).

    Our *intuition* (what we “comprehend” with) is dependent on our experience as well as our evolutionary past- remember that just as it has been claimed that science has discovered everything, it was once thought that traveling faster than thirty mph would be fatal because nobody had ever done it. We know better now because we’ve seen it done, and have few qualms about potential supersonic passenger travel. As for examining reality, well, that’s why we invented extensions to our sensorium from eyeglasses to gravitational gradiometers.

    I still say we’ve barely gotten the barrel open.

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