Archimedes, Pythagoras, Democritus. The history of science famously dates back to the brilliant minds of classical Greece. Another beginning is attributed to the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, culminating in Isaac Newton’s discovery of order in the heavens, and the founding of the Royal Society in London.
For me, however, there was a much more fascinating reboot in the 1850s, when two near-simultaneous events changed the landscape for all time and transformed our understanding of what science is. These events were: (1) the new understanding of energy and its conservation; (2) Charles Darwin’s idea about evolution by natural selection.
These breakthroughs, arriving in the same decade, were important not just for themselves, but also because each brought together what had hitherto been seen as disparate disciplines. These were the two greatest unifying ideas of all time and this was when the process of convergence was first observed.
The conservation of energy, first codified by Hermann von Helmholtz in Berlin, brought together the sciences of heat, optics, magnetism, electricity, food- and blood-chemistry. It identified the concept of “energy,” an entity which cannot be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another.
With evolution, Darwin collected copious results from zoology, botany, geology and astronomy to show that there was an “order in the rocks”, that living forms varied across the geological ages in systematic ways and that the heavens were themselves evolving, providing ample time for natural selection to have produced its effects.
The importance of these two insights was the way they brought seemingly different activities under the same umbrella. This was doubly important because it showed that the sciences, unlike other forms of knowledge (and this is the crucial point), support one another in a reciprocal framework.
Since then the convergence has gathered pace: Niels Bohr’s discoveries showed how physics and chemistry are intimately linked (through the electrons that orbit the nucleus, which give the different elements their properties; Albert Einstein famously linked space and time, to create spacetime; and Max Planck’s discovery of the quantum, that matter is itself discrete and not continuous, linked up with Mendel’s discovery that genes produce discrete effects—blue eyes or brown, but never blends. During World War II Erwin Schrödinger showed how physics governed the characteristics of the gene. Since the war astronomy and physics have been married. “Early cosmology has become synonymous with particle physics”—this is Abdus Salam, the Indian winner of the Nobel Prize in his Dirac lecture in Cambridge, UK, in 1988.
More recently various aspects of biology—photosynthesis and the remarkable ability of birds to navigate huge distances—have been shown to be explicable by quantum physics. And psychology has been amalgamating with economics. Richard Thaler has described how the economic profession has been transformed by the experimental discoveries of behavioral science. In his 2015 book, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, he charts its advances over a forty-year period, from the wilderness to the point where he himself became (in 2015) the president of the American Economic Association.
Convergence is not a trivial matter. Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize-winning professor of physics at the University of Texas, Austin, says it may be “the most important thing about the universe.”
I agree. The way the disciplines have come together, in a reciprocal framework, has produced the greatest story there could ever be—the history of the universe 13.8 billion years ago right up until now, with all discoveries fitting on one coherent line.
This unique success means, I feel sure, that the sciences are set to invade other areas of life not traditionally associated with science: law, the arts, politics, morality, social life. Sam Harris, the American philosopher and neuroscientist, has described morality as “an undeveloped aspect of science” and believes we shall eventually be able to define “human values” satisfactorily. Patricia Churchland, the Canadian-American neuroscientist, argues that our understanding of “human nature” can be refined by neuroscience, to the benefit of all.
The latest developments are aided by the recent accumulation of big data sets and our snowballing abilities in computation. For example, mathematicians, physicists and psychologists have all examined aspects of capitalism. If there is an overriding focus it is what Science magazine, in a special issue, called “The Science of Inequality.” This stems from the realisation that under capitalism, except for a few decades following the two world wars in the twentieth century, when many industrial states were on their knees financially, the basic economic order has been a growing wealth disparity within populations.
This finding—which applies to many countries—appears solid and has emerged from a wave of big data, tax returns for the past two centuries. This richness means that, as Science put it, the “stuff of science” can be applied to it—analysis, extracting causal inferences, formulating hypotheses.
In other words, the methods of science, which have proved so successful—observation, quantification, experimental testing—are being increasingly applied in new areas. By the same token, the personality of jurors is being investigated to see how psychology influences their understanding of evidence and the bringing of verdicts. In political research, psychology—again—is being used to assess which voters vote for a candidate and which vote against, and which aspects of a candidate’s personality appeal to which type of voter. How much do politics and psychology overlap?
These are exciting but challenging times. As Robert Laughlin, the Nobel Prize-winning professor of physics at Stanford, has pointed out, all areas of life—economics no less than psychology or quantum biology—are getting more accurate and therefore more predictive. The speed of light in a vacuum is now known to an accuracy of better than one part in ten trillion, atomic clocks are accurate to one part in one hundred trillion.
If science can likewise improve accuracy in our legal, educational or financial lives, we shall be making real progress. The very existence of convergence—which lies at the heart of the scientific endeavor when we examine its history—should give us optimism for the future.