A while back, I became interested in the history of science, particularly the early history, including people like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Johanne Kepler, Andreas Vesalius, and many others. In reading about them, one of the things I was struck by was how small scale science was back then.
In its beginnings, modern science was mostly conducted by polymaths, men who had a general all around knowledge and, while it did require some resources such as Vesalius’s need for cadavers, those resource requirements were not exorbitant. Science before the 19th century was conducted largely by amateurs, often gentlemen with free time on their hands and the resources for a personal lab.
Today however, science is the purview of teams of professionals, usually conducted in sophisticated labs using sophisticated equipment. Or it’s done in the field by expeditions of geologists, archaeologists, or other specialists using expensive equipment. Why is science today so different than science in the early modern era?
Is it maybe because we now understand its benefits and so budget it accordingly? That may have something to do with it, but I don’t think it’s the main reason. The main reason is that the low hanging fruit, the relatively easy empirical investigations, were done centuries ago. As science has progressed, the observations have moved from the easily accessible, to the realm of the more exotic and expensive to obtain.
A good example is particle physics. The early breakthroughs were made with relatively modest equipment, but as we’ve learned more, the scale of that equipment has grown so that today, we have the Large Hadron Collider. As I understand it, when we’ve learned everything we can with the LHC, we will need an even larger, more powerful, particle accelerator.
Or take astronomical observation. It used to be that new discoveries could be made by amateurs sitting at night with a telescope. But today, new groundbreaking discoveries need a sophisticated telescope in space, such as the Hubble telescope. We’ve learned a lot with Hubble, but to learn more, we will need to deploy the James Web telescope, a bigger, much more sophisticated (and expensive) instrument, which will be positioned much deeper into space.
This escalating need for equipment and resources makes me wonder whether science will eventually reach a point where society is no longer willing to invest the resources for further progress. That maybe, at some point far in the future, the return on investment might not be there anymore.
This wouldn’t necessarily be because a future society had become anti-scientific, or that all possible knowledge had been acquired, but because the resources needed to make further progress might simply be judged too costly. There most likely wouldn’t be a sudden point where scientific investigation ended, but a long slow tapering of progress due to the increasing resources necessary to continue it.
In other words, scientific progress might be an S curve, with accelerating progress that goes on for a while, but eventually levels out. We might be in the steep upslope of that curve, imaging that it will never end, but with an end nevertheless on its way.
Predicting the end of that upslope is very difficult when you’re in the steepest part. Many futurists in the early 20th century predicted that we’d be traveling much faster today, perhaps casually traveling in space. But after the 1970s, progress in transportation seemed to level out. Planes, cars, and general transportation aren’t really faster than they were back then. Most of the progress since then has been in efficiency.
Of course, we’re most likely centuries away from from any scientific leveling off. But it’s interesting to ponder that, someday, thousands of years from now, historians may look back and marvel at the optimism once held for never ending progress, and how much humanity owed to the Age of Science.
- Astronomers peek at ancient galaxy near the edge of the observable universe (+video) (csmonitor.com)
- guardian tecnologia: Nasa’s Kepler telescope failure is not the end of searching for another Earth (guardian.co.uk)
- Machine envy (aeon.co)
- Why Hubble Has a Telescope Named After Him (gizmodo.com)