One of the coolest—and most stressful--moments of my career took place November 7, 1996, when I was a staff writer for Scientific American. That evening, the New York Academy of Sciences sponsored a "Sneak Preview of Science in the 21st Century" featuring a panel of seven scientific luminaries.
I had interviewed four of the panelists--cosmologist James Peebles, physicist Edward Witten, and biologists Lynn Margulis and Stephen Jay Gould--for my book The End of Science, which had stirred up a ruckus after its publication five months earlier.
I was in my office hacking away at an article when I looked at my watch and realized the "Sneak Preview" had started. I ran all the way from Scientific American's headquarters in midtown Manhattan to the N.Y. Academy's upper-east-side townhouse.
I burst into the jam-packed meeting room just as an audience member, Trudy Bell, a reporter and former colleague of mine at the engineering journal IEEE Spectrum, stood and said: "I can't resist asking such a distinguished panel your opinion about John Horgan's argument in The End of Science."
An online video recording of the event made by C-Span, the public-affairs show, shows Bell's question provoking smirks and chuckles among the panelists. The recording also shows a guy in a blue blazer crossing in the front of the camera. That's me. As I searched, breathless and sweaty, for a seat, the panel members took shots at me.
"He's a very nice guy," Margulis said, "and he wrote a very bad book."
Jim Peebles said that in his field, cosmology, he sees "no end, and no cause for concern about the end of research."
Chemist and Nobel laureate Dudley Herschbach groused that I had chapters on the end of particle physics, evolution biology and neuroscience but "no 'End of Chemistry'!"
Witten insisted that "the next 35 years will be one of the greatest periods of the adventure of theoretical physics."
Gould, who had spotted me, said, "I don't mind saying this in your presence John." He called my thesis "ridiculous," and likened me to scholars who sought attention by declaring the "end of literature."
Someone shoved a microphone at me. Months of defending my thesis on radio and television and in public talks had left me pretty battle-hardened. I was nonetheless stunned to find myself thrust so abruptly into the spotlight, especially after being scolded by these mega-experts.
Irked especially by Gould's comments, I began babbling about the difference between literature, which is based solely on imagination and hence is potentially infinite, and science, which faces physical limits.
The panel's moderator, Peter Brown, editor of the N.Y. Academy of Sciences magazine The Sciences (now defunct), ordered me to ask a question. Here's what I came up with: "Even if you don't accept that science is close to being finished now, do you think that science is an infinite process, like literature or even mathematics, or do you see any limits, and possible end point to the process?"
Why do I dredge up this ancient history? Because this week Basic Books is publishing a new paperback and electronic edition of The End of Science. The re-launch has stirred up many memories—and forced me to evaluate my thesis. My book has now sustained almost two decades worth of attacks, some triggered by genuine scientific advances, from the completion of the Human Genome Project to the discovery of the Higgs boson. So do I take anything back?
I wrote a preface for the new edition, which begins as follows:
Here's what a fanatic I am: When I have a captive audience of innocent youths, I expose them to my evil meme.
Since 2005, I've taught history of science to undergraduates at Stevens Institute of Technology, an engineering school perched on the bank of the Hudson River. After we get through ancient Greek "science," I make my students ponder this question: Will our theories of the cosmos seem as wrong to our descendants as Aristotle's theories seem to us?
I assure them there is no correct answer, then tell them the answer is "No," because Aristotle's theories were wrong and our theories are right. The Earth orbits the Sun, not vice versa, and our world is made not of earth, water, fire and air but of hydrogen, carbon and other elements that are in turn made of quarks and electrons.
Our descendants will learn much more about nature, and they will invent gadgets even cooler than smart phones. But their scientific version of reality will resemble ours, for two reasons: First, ours… is in many respects true; most new knowledge will merely extend and fill in our current maps of reality rather than forcing radical revisions. Second, some major remaining mysteries—Where did the universe come from? How did life begin? How, exactly, does a chunk of meat make a mind?--might be unsolvable.
That's my end-of-science argument in a nutshell, and I believe it as much today as I did when I was finishing my book 20 years ago. That's why I keep writing about my thesis, and why I make my students ponder it—even though I hope I'm wrong, and I'm oddly relieved when my students reject my pessimistic outlook… So far my prediction that there would be no great "revelations or revolutions"—no insights into nature as cataclysmic as heliocentrism, evolution, quantum mechanics, relativity, the big bang--has held up just fine.
In some ways, science is in even worse shape today than I would have guessed back in the 1990s. In The End of Science, I predicted that scientists, as they struggle to overcome their limitations, would become increasingly desperate and prone to hyperbole. This trend has become more severe and widespread than I anticipated. In my 30-plus years of covering science, the gap between the ideal of science and its messy, all-too-human reality has never been greater than it is today.
I go on to review the status of physics, biology, neuroscience and chaoplexity (my coinage for chaos and complexity, the hype of which has been repackaged under the label "Big Data"). Neither these nor any other fields, I contend, has yielded discoveries that contradict my end-of-science prophecy (although the startling discovery in the late 1990s that the expansion of the cosmos is accelerating comes closest).
I hope a new generation of readers discovers my book, because I'd love to argue with them about the limits of science. Some critics have suggested that such a discussion is bad for science. In a 1999 column in Physics Today, physicist and Nobel laureate Philip Anderson (another character in my book) blamed the malaise in physics on "Horganism," which he defined as "the belief that the end of science (or at least of our science) is at hand." Anderson chided me for "pessimism," which he feared would become "self-fulfilling."
I consider my view of science as realistic, not pessimistic. Also, as readers of this blog know, I'm optimistic about what matters most. I believe science—and, more broadly, human reason--can help us create a world without poverty, tyranny and war, in which all people can flourish.
And even if I'm right about the era of fundamental science ending, researchers still have many marvels to discover. Thomas Eisner, a biologist and insect specialist who was on that 1996 panel, made this point when responding to my question about whether science is infinite.
"John, I liked your book," Eisner said, "I thought it sharpened the mind. I have required it of my graduate students. But I do think you're wrong in a fundamental way. You equate science with the search for great universal truths." Biologists have discovered many phenomena, such as honeybee dancing and bat echolocation, that "apply to no more than one or a few species," Eisner said. "But to me they are part of that extraordinary process of discovery, which is going to keep biology alive, certainly beyond my life, and I hope beyond the life of my grandchildren."
I hope so too.
"R.I.P. Lynn Margulis, Biological Rebel."
"Defending Stephen Jay Gould's Crusade Against Biological Determinism."
"Physics Titan Edward Witten Still Thinks String Theory 'on the Right Track.'”