Will the age of science end?

Large Hadron Collider quadrupole magnets for d...

Large Hadron Collider quadrupole magnets for directing proton beams to interact. These superconducting quadrupole electromagnetas were made in Fermilab. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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11 Responses to Will the age of science end?

  1. john zande says:

    Interesting proposition. I’d never thought of it, but we could well predict a flattening out. Then again, once a solid idea of quantum gravity is established we’re going to be pretty much looking at the universe/universes anew, and only Great Veles knows what that circus will look like.

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  2. brett milner says:

    I think there may be multiple S-curves, given enough time and civilization not suffering setbacks that undo progress. Transportation and particle physics are both leveling out to a degree (some particle physicists have lamented that the LHC has turned up nothing unexpected; the Standard Model is so successful as to become almost routine, and some where hoping that the LHC would point to some new physics. Maybe next year…). Consider what happened when quantum physics was first discovered and formulated, and Relativity as well. These gave a kick-start to existing paradigms and steepened the curve yet again. I’m optimistically hoping for a future breakthrough in transportation, since a few people at NASA are taking a serious look ‘warp drive’ physics, that will steepen the curve again on a few fronts at once.

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  3. Good points. It seems something similar happens with every field. At first, it’s possible for a single person to grasp the field, then it gets more complex so that the best one can hope for is a specialty in a sub-field.

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    • When I took my research methods class in grad school, two realizations hit me. One was how incremental scientific progress is, with most “breakthrough” really being the result of a lot of incremental work right up to it, and second was how specialized everyone was. The mad genius of fiction would need to be a mad team of geniuses to be realistic.

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  4. Steve Morris says:

    I think it’s highly likely that science is on an S curve. You would hope that science one day answers all the big questions, and the rest is just detail and new applications. The alternative is that an explanation of the universe requires an unending nested set of explanations, as if it had been created by an evil creator specifically to torment any intelligent life it contained.

    The challenge will be to see if human ingenuity is capable of reaching that end point, or whether we will be defeated by lack of intelligence, failure of imagination, or an inability to fund big experiments.

    I would guess we’re about halfway done. Question: what happens when we understand everything? Do we die of boredom, or does that understanding enable us to live life to its full potential?

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    • I’ve pondered that question myself. It seems like the world would be a dimmer place, but it’s worth remembering that most of humanity have only a casual attitude toward science, and probably wouldn’t miss it as long as their standard of living continued.

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