Goodbye, Einstein


The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age, by John Horgan, Reading, Mass.: Helix Books/Addison-Wesley, 309 pages, $24.00

Shortly before the millennium ends, I shall write my magnum opus, tentatively titled The End of Books Titled the End of Something. In it, I shall reveal a profound shift in human affairs, unnoticed by anyone but myself: the passing of the era in which the reading public was bombarded with sweeping, speculative tomes that draw the curtain down upon History, Equality, Racism, or some other Big Thing.

It will be sad to say farewell to all these valedictory volumes, for they have been entertaining, if a bit portentous. What they have in common are soaring authorial ambition, plenty of certitude about what the post-Whatever future will look like, and a willingness to use unconventional definitions to justify the title's hyperbole. (The End of History, you may recall, did not mean that nothing more would happen; it meant that a Hegelian process of social evolution had culminated in democratic capitalism.)

Yet the demise of endism is not quite upon us yet. (Perhaps it will come only when all major categories are exhausted and publishers start receiving manuscripts with titles like The End of Volleyball.) The End of Science, a lively, witty book by science writer John Horgan, exemplifies the genre's virtues and faults: It is fun to read. It will make people think. It careens from one topic to another in the service of its grand theme. And it issues a death certificate that is, in all likelihood, more than a little premature.

Built loosely around Horgan's excellent profiles of well-known scientists and philosophers for Scientific American, The End of Science takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of particle physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, complexity theory, anthropology, and inchoate fields such as "limitology" (Horgan's term for efforts to determine science's limits) and "scientific theology" (far-out speculations about the ultimate role of intelligence in the universe). Throughout, Horgan finds evidence that the scientific quest for knowledge is, rapidly and irreversibly, running out of gas.

The End of Science is not primarily concerned with science's social and political troubles of recent years, such as the superconducting supercollider's cancellation or the rise of New Age mysticism. These are, if anything, mere symptoms of the deeper malaise that Horgan diagnoses: Science's major breakthroughs, such as evolution and quantum mechanics, are already behind it, leaving only the mundane task of filling in the details of existing theories. Like modern poets who lumber in the shadow of Shakespeare and Dante, scientists now have little prospect of matching their illustrious predecessors. There is nothing all that important left for them to discover.

Haven't we heard this before? Horgan's thesis recalls the oft-told story of the 19th-century patent official who wanted to shut down his office because everything had been invented. But that tale has been exposed by historians as apocryphal, as Horgan notes. Similar reports that Victorian-era physicists complacently regarded their discipline as more-or-less complete appear upon inspection to be exaggerated. Anyway, even if these stories were historically accurate, the objection that people were mistakenly arguing Horgan's point 100 years ago would not be very compelling: Perhaps science has finally reached the end point that was wrongly predicted before.

Unlike some present-day physicists who claim to be verging on a "theory of everything," Horgan does not present science's end in triumphalist terms. Rather than exiting the stage in a blaze of glory, science is seen stumbling into a cul-de-sac, bumping up against its own intrinsic limits while leaving many questions unanswered. Seeking to expand the boundaries of current knowledge, researchers are increasingly engaged in what Horgan calls "ironic science"–imaginative but empirically untestable theorizing about the nature of consciousness, the origin of the universe, and other intractable mysteries.

Hence, physicist Edward Witten expounds upon infinitesimal superstrings and multiple dimensions, seemingly unfazed that no one has any idea how to detect such things. Cosmologists such as Stephen Hawking toy with unverifiable notions of wormholes, baby universes, and time travel. Biologists studying the origin of life move from one faddish theory to another, unable to recreate with any certainty the conditions of the primordial earth. Might the much-publicized fields of chaos and complexity open a new horizon for substantial research? Not likely, Horgan argues; chaos theorists' computer simulations have turned out to be little more than poetic metaphors, with limited explanatory power.

Horgan, a science enthusiast, is unimpressed by postmodern philosophy's claims that scientific facts are mere social constructs. He notes that the radical relativist Paul Feyerabend did not hesitate to seek medical attention upon learning he had cancer. Indeed, much philosophy of science, encapsulated in Horgan's encounters with its practitioners, appears to be self-refuting gibberish, as when Sir Karl Popper pounds a tabletop while shouting that he is not dogmatic. Yet as science moves into its post-empirical phase, Horgan predicts, it will lose its privileged status among disciplines, becoming something like philosophy or–worse yet–literary criticism. Stumped by the conundrums of quantum mechanics and superstring theory, the once proud physics profession will descend into noisy, unresolvable debates, much like those of the Modern Language Association.

Set against this bleak backdrop, Horgan presents amusing vignettes of the scientists he has met. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins icily dismisses an audience member's muddled questions. Chaos theoretician Mitchell Feigenbaum bumps his shin against a coffee table in a painful encounter with reality. Francis Crick appears as a grinning "Mephistopheles of biology," gleefully deflating common assumptions about consciousness and free will. Many of Horgan's interlocutors harbor a deep ambivalence toward the notion that science might be finite: They want to find answers, but also to continue questioning.

Pure science, seeking knowledge for its own sake, is the noblest of human endeavors, according to Horgan (who does not note that similar claims are routinely made on behalf of art, religion, and even "public service"). Even in its speculative, "ironic" mode, science can serve a valuable purpose, kindling our sense of awe and reminding us how little we know. But, Horgan insists, the era of scientific discovery is over, much like that of exploration of the earth. Its passing will exacerbate humanity's spiritual anxieties. Echoing Francis Fukuyama, as well as biologist Gunther Stent's notion of a "new Polynesia," Horgan expects society to drift into a bored hedonism, perhaps punctuated by occasional warfare.

Applied science will continue in the new era, Horgan acknowledges, since technological innovations can still be squeezed from existing theories. But this will be mere engineering, not really science. Moreover, it won't amount to much. Space travel will always be limited by the huge distances involved. Once-promising fields such as nuclear fusion and artificial intelligence have lost much of their luster. Even the greatest imaginable achievement of applied science–human immortality–would be something of a letdown, Horgan thinks, since it would not radically alter our understanding of the universe.

The End of Science takes note of some possible loopholes in its own pessimistic scenario. Perhaps extraterrestrial life will be discovered tomorrow, opening a grand new era of comparative biology. Maybe civilization will eventually become so wealthy that it can afford particle accelerators that encircle the globe. Or superintelligent robots will perform scientific experiments beyond our wildest imaginings. To raise such objections, of course, is tantamount to dismissing them; besides being good material for The X-Files, they serve only to bolster Horgan's case.

Back in the real world, however, science is showing stronger vital signs than one might expect of an enterprise entering its final convulsions. Astronomers have recently compiled the first hard evidence for the existence of planets circling other stars. Physicists stung by the supercollider's demise have begun designing new types of accelerators to probe fundamental questions about the nature of matter. Biologists have discovered that bacteria can thrive in ocean-floor vents and other extremely inhospitable locales, completely cut off from the energy of the sun. The empirical ethos is deeply embedded in modern science; it may not evaporate as easily as Horgan expects.

In The End of Science's final chapters, Horgan plunges into fantastical speculations about God and the universe that are only tenuously linked to the book's main argument. Perhaps all life and intelligence will ultimately converge in a God-like "Omega Point," a vast information-processing network predicted by physicist Frank Tipler (taking a cue from theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin). In Horgan's view, this all-powerful cosmic computer would pursue the only question worthy of it: Why is there a universe rather than nothing? Not surprisingly, given Horgan's pessimism, even the Omega Point ends up stumped.

Kenneth Silber (ksilberny@aol.com) writes about science and public policy for Insight and other publications.