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

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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.

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

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