Thursday, April 10, 2014

John Horgan: Same old, same old.

John Horgan writes about science for National Geographic.  You may remember him from his book, The End of Science.   His thesis, 17 years ago, was that science is basically done - there just aren't going to be too many more profound discoveries, particularly in physics, because we've figured it all out and the rest is just details.  Well, I'll give him this for consistency:  He's still flogging this dead horse 17 years later, as seen in his recent column.  I disagree with his point of view.  Even if you limit yourself to physics, there are plenty of discoveries left to be made for a long time to come - things only look bleak if (a) you're only a reductionist; and (b) you limit your interest in physics to a narrow range of topics.  In other words, possibly looking for supersymmetric partners at the LHC might not be a great bet, but that doesn't mean that all of science is over.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

John Horgan refers to fundamental physics, not to some physical effects! Regarding this, he might indeed be right

Douglas Natelson said...

If your definition of "fundamental physics" only refers to reductionism (that is, elementary particle physics), then perhaps, though even there I am unconvinced. If Horgan's entire definition of "science" essentially comes down to accelerator-based particle physics, that's pretty sad.

DanM said...

Anybody who defines "fundamental physics" to mean "particle physics" does not understand physics.

Anonymous said...

I think, for example, of quantum physics. Other essential examples can be found in Horgan's book "The End of Science".

Anzel said...

It's almost as if we didn't just recently discover Ampluhedra as a radically better method for computing Feynman integrals.

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon, it just annoys me that Horgan seemingly gets away with the "no true Scotsman" fallacy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman). He gets lots of attention by declaring that science is all over but the details, and then reserves the right to redefine science to mean whatever fits his argument. Somehow biology (including the bio basis for consciousness) doesn't count. Neither does, e.g. , catalysis in chemistry. Neither does the quantum many body problem. Neither does the problem of understanding quantum systems driven out of equilibrium. It's just not intellectually cricket, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

antireductionist Bob Laughlins 2 books are filled with nuttiness too. Whats with his obsession with the H-bomb research National Ignition Facility changing the world? and his recent paper that condensed matter is filled with reproducibility and materials problems?

I'm with horgan at least in spirit. here we are in 2014 still putting petrol in our tanks. the synthetic fuel facilities are not being built and the infrastructure is falling apart. there is no energy plan, no heavy manufacturing capability to build nuclear reactors. just the usual "breakthroughs" of lab scale experiments and huge #'s of bad papers and increasing corruption. read the latest post from condensedconcepts blog. not exactly optimistic either.

the infinite phd programme has been a bust.

Anonymous said...

If one accepts the natural limitations of our intellectual capabilities (we aren’t - so to speak - the “pride of creation”) then there are scientific questions we are unable to answer; we don’t have the “means”. Horgan’s book "The End of Science" tries to identify some of these questions. There are ongoing speculative discussions around some of these questions, with a lot of comments and subcomments, maybe interesting and entertaining, but without any real consequences for our understanding. That’s what Horgan calls “ironic science”. To my mind, that will happen in more and more fields of science: The generation "scientific white noise” - often provided with some catchy labels - to keep the science machine running.

gilroy0 said...

Anon--
First, I think it just adorable that you think current "natural limitations" are permanent, even as we learn more about how the brain works. Second, I think I'll side with the weight of history, which says that every time we push our detectors to new regimes, we discover new things -- things that end up overturning and subsuming the "obviously complete" picture in which they arise.

I also think Doug is spot-on with the No True Scotsman flavor of Horgan's work.

Anonymous said...

gilroy0--

I am really curious: What have we learned about how the brain works in the last decades?

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon, I think you will find that neuroscientsts would be delighted to tell you about how much they've learned over the last decades. If you mean how does consciousness originate from 1.5 kg of meat jelly, well, that's still an open question, but we surely have learned a ton about how information is processed in the brain.

Anonymous said...

Douglas Natelson--

Maybe, we have learned something how information is processed in the brain. But that’s not the point as regard to gilroy0’s comment. Does this knowledge itself shift the limits of the intellectual capabilities of our brains?

David Strubbe said...

Horgan suggests that recent Nobel Prizes are for confirmation of standard things whereas earlier ones were for "fundamental revelations." I don't think that idea stands up to serious scrutiny. Amongst the pioneers of modern physics in the early 20th century we also have Nils Gustaf Dalén, "for his invention of automatic regulators for use in conjunction with gas accumulators for illuminating lighthouses and buoys" (1912) and Guglielmo Marconi and Karl Ferdinand Braun "in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy" (1909). Useful engineering surely but hardly fundamental.