I’ve been reminiscing again about The End of Science, published exactly two decades ago (and in an updated edition last year), because I just stumbled on video of me defending the book on Charlie Rose.
Rose, the legendary television interviewer, had me on his show in July 1996 with two guests: astrophysicist Jeremiah Ostriker and science journalist Michael Lemonick (now Scientific American’s opinion editor).
When Rose asked me to summarize my thesis, I said: “Really, my argument is that science is a victim of its own success and, to understand that, you have to look at what science has already accomplished. Physicists have shown that all matter consists of a few basic particles ruled by a few basic forces. Astronomers like Dr. Ostriker have shown that the universe consists of all these galaxies much like our own Milky Way. The universe exploded into existence about 15 billion years ago and it's expanding to this day. When you look at biology, biologists have basically proven that all life descended from a common ancestor about four billion years ago and proliferated through this process of natural selection. So really what I'm saying is that scientists have created this kind of map of reality and this narrative of creation and in the future they're going to be filling in details. There are going to be incremental advances, but there won't be any great revolutions or insights analogous to quantum mechanics or Darwin's theory of evolution.”
Ostriker, who refused to share a cab with me after the show, denounced my thesis as “transparently silly.” He pointed out that there are “enormous” unanswered questions in physics and cosmology, like, What is dark matter? And how did the universe begin?
I countered that truly profound cosmic questions, like why there is something rather than nothing, will probably never be answered. Other questions will yield answers that merely add details to the big-bang paradigm.
Rose and Lemonick both raised a legitimate point, noting that Ostriker and I were squabbling about what counts as “fundamental.” “A lot of this has to do with a matter of definition,” Lemonick said.
I took this objection so seriously that I addressed it in the paperback edition of The End of Science. Here is what I wrote, lightly edited:
In arguing that scientists will not discover anything as fundamental as Darwin's theory of evolution or quantum mechanics, I should have spelled out more carefully what I meant by fundamental. A fact or theory is fundamental in proportion to how broadly it applies both in space and in time. Both the standard model of particle physics and general relativity apply, to the best of our knowledge, throughout the entire universe at all times since its birth. That makes these theories truly fundamental. A theory of high-temperature superconductivity, in contrast, applies only to specific types of matter that may exist, as far as we know, only in laboratories here on earth.
Inevitably, more subjective criteria also come into play in rankings of scientific findings. Technically, all biological theories are less fundamental than the cornerstone theories of physics, because biological theories apply--again, as far as we know--only to particular arrangements of matter that have existed on our lonely little planet for the past 3.5 billion years. But biology has the potential to be more meaningful than physics because it more directly addresses a phenomenon we find especially fascinating: ourselves.
Daniel Dennett has argued persuasively that evolution by natural selection is "the single best idea anyone has ever had," because it "unifies the realm of life, meaning and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law." Indeed, Darwin's achievement--especially when fused with Mendelian genetics into the new synthesis--has rendered all subsequent biology oddly anticlimactic, at least from a philosophical perspective.
Returning to my dispute with Jeremiah Ostriker, my position is that cosmologists will never top the big bang theory, which holds basically that the universe is expanding and was once much smaller, hotter and denser than it is today. The theory provides a coherent narrative, one with profound theological overtones, for the history of the universe. The universe had a beginning, and it might have an end (although I doubt cosmologists will ever have enough evidence to settle this latter issue conclusively). What can be more profound, more meaningful, than that?
In contrast, the most likely solution to the dark-matter problem is relatively insignificant. The solution posits that the motions of individual galaxies and of clusters of galaxies are best explained by assuming that the galaxies contain dust, dead stars and other conventional forms of matter that cannot be detected through telescopes. There are more dramatic versions of the dark-matter problem, which postulate that as much as 99 percent of the universe consists of some exotic matter unlike anything we are familiar with here on earth. But these versions are predictions of inflation and other far-fetched cosmic suppositions that will probably never be confirmed.
Today, Ostriker would no doubt say that my end-of-science thesis has been contradicted by the discovery of the acceleration of the universe in 1999; the Higgs boson in 2012; and gravitational waves this year.
The cosmic-acceleration finding is the biggest scientific discovery of the last two decades, but it has not forced any radical revisions in big-bang cosmology. The Higgs boson and gravitational waves confirmed predictions of the Standard Model of particle physics and general relativity.
The weird thing about my end-of-science thesis is that it can never be said to be true. It can only be said to be true so far. I think it is true so far, and some scientists seem to reluctantly agree.
See for example this stinging critique of particle physics by Sabine Hossenfelder. “During my professional career,” she writes, “all I have seen is failure. A failure of particle physicists to uncover a more powerful mathematical framework to improve upon the theories we already have. Yes, failure is part of science--it’s frustrating, but not worrisome. What worries me much more is our failure to learn from failure. Rather than trying something new, we’ve been trying the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.”
Hossenfelder ends by warning that “you can’t trust the judgment of scientists whose future funding depends on their continued optimism. Things can only get better."
The emphasis is mine.
Postscript: Charlie Rose interviewed me again in 1999, after the publication of The Undiscovered Mind, my sequel to The End of Science. As he did in 1996, Rose pushed back against my no-more-big-discoveries thesis. Rose’s interviewing technique annoys some viewers, but I liked it. I was terrified before both shows, but Rose made me forget the cameras, lights and crew. He was just a smart guy curious about my wacky ideas.