Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Science hasn't ended yet….

Twenty years ago the journalist John Horgan wrote a book called the ‘End of Science’. This must be one of the best popular science book ever written. Instead of the usual sycophantic interviews and hyped up description what scientists do, Horgan employed a more investigative style of journalism. He met with scientist after scientist and argued with them that all they were doing was either pointless tying up of loose ends or applied engineering. The big scientific questions were all already answered by Darwin, Einstein, Feynman etc.

Picture from Robert Laughlin's
collection of cartoons illustrating his ideas.
It was this accusation that science is over, which Robert Laughlin addressed in his Ångström lecture in Uppsala. His hand drawn image shown on the right illustrated his main point. If you look in to the distance, like the character pointing towards the fantastic “frontier”, then it seems that all questions are answered. All the important things are answered by the beautiful view. On the other hand, if you ignore the view, like the other two characters in his drawing, and you instead look down at the detail of things nearby, then everything is a lot more difficult to comprehend. Science is just starting

Laughlin's presentation built on a point first made in Philip Anderson's seminal paper that 'more is different'. The idea is that at all levels of physical, chemical, biological and social organization, we cannot expect to use simple extrapolations of observations from the level of organization below to understand the level above. For example, the rigidity of ice isn't found in a description of a single water molecule. Similarly, we can’t claim to understand the internet just because we know how to program a computer. The combination of applications and content is more than the sum of the individual lines of code.

Laughlin goes one step further in this argument. He claims that "all laws of physics are discovered, and none are derived from first principles”. He argues that we can't sit down and reason our way to physical relationships from what we know already at the level below. Instead, we need to invent new “emergent” ways of describing systems, which combined with experiment allow us to understand things better. Each new law of emergent organisation must be understood in its own terms. This means that even if projects like string theory and grand-unification were to work, they do not provide much additional information about the rest of the Universe.

Some of Laughlin’s argument is common sense to anyone working outside physics (and to many people working inside physics too). No one would seriously claim that we can better understand animal biology using particle physics. But other parts of the argument require serious consideration by all scientists, not just physicists. For example, is genetics really relevant for understanding social behavior? Many biologists would argue that it is the most important tool we have, but maybe it requires us to step up over too many scales?

I think what Laughlin is trying to argue is that Science can’t be thought of as ending, because the so-called great scientific laws of Darwin, Newton etc. are ‘just’ examples of discoveries of useful regularities. While they are great discoveries, they are no more fundamental than finding out that stacking objects makes certain shapes of pyramid or that water freezes in the same way as other chemicals. They are no more fundamental than finding out that connecting up a load of computers results in a massive change in human society. Not every discovery is equal---Laughlin received a Nobel prize in 1998 for his “discovery of a new form of quantum fluid”---but no discovery is more fundamental than any another.


  1. I found the book by Hogan to lack any kind of serious reasoning about the future of science. Basically he picks up a number of scientific topics that are post-Darwin and post-Quantum mechanics and dismisses them with severe handwaving as 'more of the same', In addition he comments on the personal appearance of many scientists in a way that has no place in a book about science. When he asks Popper about his idea of falsification not being falsifiable itself I cringed in my seat. Someone who cannot tell the difference between science and the scientific method should stay away from science writing.

  2. I don't have the book anymore. I gave it to a PhD student on a plane in China and never saw it again (nor did I ever see the student again---he left science). I just remember enjoying it immensely. But maybe it was just the comments on the personal appearance I enjoyed!

  3. It definitely has a different take on science, and I must admit that the list of people he interviewed is impressive, covering the most influential philosophers, physicists and biologists of the 20th century. A shame about the topic though.