Has The Universe Run Out Of Secrets?


Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age

By John Horgan Addison Wesley -- 308pp -- $24

After much pondering, I came up with three reasons why John Horgan has written a book boldly proclaiming that "science...has ended." One is simple expediency. As Scientific American's best writer, Horgan has carved out a niche: profiling luminaries of science and the philosophy of science. Most of them are long past their first bursts of youthful creativity. (Indeed, quite a few have died since Horgan interviewed them.) In the author's profiles, these subjects tend to ruminate about their legacies--and life's deeper questions.

In addition, instead of covering real scientific conferences to hear the latest findings on, say, heart disease or geology, Horgan has a penchant for attending rap-session-like gatherings on such fuzzy topics as the limits of knowledge. There, researchers prove that brilliance in science doesn't make them any better equipped than the ancient Greeks to understand the nature of truth.

All of this has left Horgan with notebooks full of fascinating musings about the power and ultimate reach of science. So it's a shrewd move to repackage his original profiles and stories as a quest to prove that "the great era of scientific discovery may be over." And if many of his subjects don't agree, Horgan, with engaging hubris, retorts that the scientists are misleading themselves.

The repackaging works surprisingly well, creating a compelling tale. It helps, too, that despite the title, the book is much more than an argument that science is ending. A deft wordsmith and keen observer, Horgan offers lucid expositions of everything from superstring theory and Thomas Kuhn's analysis of scientific revolutions to the origin of life and sociobiology. He also delivers on his promise to provide "a series of pmrtraits, warts and all," of top scientists and thinkers. The long list includes linguist Noam Chomsky, biologists Edward O. Wilson, Francis Crick, and Stephen Jay Gould, and physicists John Wheeler and Sheldon Glashow.

He has a knack for revealing description. Of artificial-intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, he writes: "With his paunch and vaguely Asian features, he resembled Buddha--Buddha reincarnated as a hyperactive hacker." The search for a pithy phrase, however, can lead Horgan to trivialize ideas and personas. Gould's "view of life can...be summed up by the old bumper-sticker slogan, `Shit happens,"' he writes, while Stephen Hawking "may be less a truth seeker than...a cosmic joker." But, hey, that's part of the fun.

A second reason for the book is that Horgan's argument is worth making--although his pessimistic conclusion is far too sweeping. It's self-evident that, as Horgan points out, "we can only discover the periodic table and the expansion of the universe...once." It also may be true that "there will be no great revelations in the future comparable to those bestowed upon us by Darwin or Einstein or Watson and Crick." Clearly, progress in some fields, such as particle physics, has slowed or even halted.

But there's no guarantee that the future won't bring important discoveries. After all, every time thinkers have believed they had all the answers, they've been hit with new surprises. Horgan himself admits that finding extraterrestrial life would revolutionize biology. And better particle accelerators, planetary probes, and other scientific tools will undoubtedly turn up revelations.

Even if tomorrow's findings don't measure up to the discovery of DNA's structure or the theory of relativity, does that mean science has ended? Horgan argues that it does, claiming that what's left will simply be boring detail work. But that fails to take into account how many such details remain to be elucidated--or how important they are. What about figuring out exactly how the intricate dance of genes and carcinogens leads to cancer? Or understanding the physics of tiny bits of matter--thus laying the foundation for tomorrow's electronics? The answers may not be the Ultimate Truth that Horgan craves, but to lesser mortals like me and to thousands of real scientists, there's more than enough intellectual challenge.

Which brings me to my final insight into Horgan's motivations. The book may ostensibly be about limits to science, but the subtext is Horgan's preoccupation with what he callsThe Answer--a theory that explains everything. There's much bracing speculation by Horgan's subjects about such a final theory and how it might prove trivial or incomprehensible.

Even while doubting that science can find a final theory, Horgan fears getting too close to one. "The Answer is that there is no answer, only a question," he writes. So the more knowledge we get, the more we must "confront the pointlessness of existence." That explains why "we humans, even as we are compelled to seek truth, also shrink from it," he argues.

Let's hope that Horgan's gloom isn't any more serious than that of Gregory Chaitin, a top IBM mathematician. In one amusing incident, Chaitin proclaims that mathematics is dead, then blames his pessimism on having eaten too many bagels. But all this talk of ultimate truths is a bit too deep for me. I prefer a sentiment Horgan quotes from British neuroscientist and Nobel laureate John Eccles: We must keep "discovering and discovering and discovering....And we must not claim to have the last word on anything." Not even about the end of science.

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