Monday, June 20, 2011

Is Science Nearing Its End?

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.

Gulf News published an Op-Ed by me this past Friday. They didn’t change the title I had given it: “Is Science nearing its end?” Originally, I wanted to review the recent book by Russell Stannard, “The End of Discovery”, which is subtitled "Are we approaching the boundaries of the knowable?" But Gulf News was not interested, for several reasons, one being that the book is more than 6 months old, and another being that they tend to publish reviews of mainly socio-political books or biographies. So I suggested that I write an Op-Ed commentary on the question of whether scientific knowledge is closing down, arguing that this is an important issue to consider.
And indeed, they invited me to write such a piece, which they immediately loved and published the very next Friday (when such Perspectives articles are run), without changing its title, and with almost no modification whatsoever. Interestingly, it seems to have received quite a number of hits, judging by the number of “Like”, “Share”, and even “Tweet”.
I will paste the first few paragraphs below.

I also would like to draw your attention to a long (4,000-word) article on Islam and Science that was published yesterday (June 19) in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It is by Steve Paulson (you may recall my brief presentation of his recent book “Atoms and Eden” a few months ago); the piece is titled: “Does Islam Stand Against Science?” I have only browsed through it quickly. I will probably come back and discuss it more attentively sometime soon. For now, I want to note that both Salman and I are quoted repeatedly therein…

Here are the first few paragraphs from “Is Science nearing its end?”
Fifteen years ago, American science writer and commentator John Horgan rocked the scientific community with a book titled The end of Science. In it he argued that while the early 20th century had witnessed major scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts, the past 50 years were sterile. According to him, humans had, for all intents and purposes, uncovered the fundamental laws of nature, and should now only seek good practical applications.
A few years before that, American Nobel prizewinning physicist Steven Weinberg published Dreams of a Final Theory, claiming that scientists were nearing the construction of a unified theory of nature — hence that there will soon be little left to find, at least in physics (the most fundamental of sciences).
And last October, Russell Stannard, Emeritus professor of the UK's Open University, published The End of Discovery, asking, "Are we approaching the boundaries of the knowable?"
Intuitively, people tend to think that knowledge is boundless, that the universe's phenomena are infinitely varied and layered, and that there will always be things to discover and understand. As the Quran puts it beautifully: "And if every tree on earth were made into pens, and the sea to supply it with ink, with seven more seas to add, God's words would not be exhausted…" (31:27)
So why do such highly intelligent and knowledgeable thinkers believe that science is coming to an end? Are there no more great questions to answer?
You can read the rest here.


Akbar said...

Not until we know if there is life anywhere else in the universe. Not until we know why there shouldn't be precursor molecules of life in nature anymore in similar environments claimed to brew life eons ago. Not until we know why there is life in the first place. Not until we know why there is something called universe instead of nothing.
I think one possible reason for not having a big breakthrough in recent decades is that now we already know there are frontiers in science where the currently defined parameters of science start breaking apart in every sense of the word. All this points in a direction we really want to go, do we? Ok let us not talk about it. There is a dogma of the high church of atheism we have to follow.

Akbar said...

Oh ok, the points I raised are already mentioned in the article.
'Yes, science needs to be cherished, supported and protected as one of the greatest human achievements'. I like this statement in the concluding para :-)

Roger said...

Towards the end of the nineteenth century classical physicists were also sure they had reached the limits of significant knowledge. All that was left was filling in the gaps...

Roger said...

Towards the end of the nineteenth century classical physiciss were also sure they were at the edge of possible knowledge. All that had to be done was filling in the gaps...

Akbar said...

Couldn't agree more. The discovery of subatomic particles and the advent of quantum physics opened a whole new chapter. Yet we don't know what is around the corner for us.

Dark Star said...

There are trillions of questions that are not yet answered, and entire REALMS of the universe we are barely even aware of.

Neuroscience is a wide-open field and the tools for proper exploration have not even been constructed yet. fMRI is a started, but we will get thousands of times better.

abiogenesis is still in infancy with thousands of open questions to be explored. As well as cellular mechanics. Genetics (we still don't know exactly how most of these things work).

There are hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of species that have not been studied yet.

And I think we're still a LONG way from being done with high-energy physics. We will build another generation or two here on Earth and then we will need to look at capturing the ultra-high energy particles (cosmic rays) which will take us into power realms we cannot reach with our relatively limited power sources.

I cannot imagine science every coming to an end, not even with a trillion scientists working for a trillion years.

Every person in History who has declared science is almost done has been standing unaware on the precipice of some new major discovery (as Roger also said).

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Dear All,
Thanks for your comments, and sorry for my absence, but by now you know that I was totally busy with the ‘Belief in Dialogue’ Sharjah conference.
Actually, you are all correct to some extent, but those opinions should be fine-tuned a bit, and my Op-Ed piece should be read more carefully. In fact, Akbar posted his first comments, then he came back and stated that indeed the points he had just made were already included in my article.
Likewise the issues that Dark Star is raising, most are directly or indirectly raised in the article.
But first, I’d like to stress that the proponents of the idea that science is coming to an end are more concerned about “fundamental” discoveries, not what they would regard as secondary topics or applied science. For instance, I don’t think “cellular mechanics” would be seen as potentially opening new vistas through fundamental discoveries, or else please explain. And I’m not sure what Dark Star means by “Genetics (we still don't know exactly how most of these things work).” What ‘these things’ are you referring to?
Also, please do note that I was not siding with the “naysayers”; I don’t want to quote myself, but here’s what I said: “…perhaps tomorrow novel questions will arise, opening up new vistas, and launching science into new directions. And even those ‘intractable' topics, we may be looking at them from a wrong angle; a new Einstein may come and address them in an unexpected, genius way.”

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Finally, Roger brings up a popular claim that is actually not grounded in historical facts. He says: “Towards the end of the nineteenth century classical physiciss were also sure they were at the edge of possible knowledge. All that had to be done was filling in the gaps... “ While I am aware of one or two anecdotes where a physicist claimed that “there wasn’t much left to discover”, that can hardly be generalized to “19th century classical physicists”. Indeed, we all know that the question of the ether was being investigated in earnest, and everyone realized it was a crucial issue. Likewise for atoms and their structure, and a host of other issues. Let me ask this: we know there are people nowadays claiming that science is coming to and end; would you say that they represent the majority of scientists? Couldn’t someone in 100 years quote them and generalize as you’re doing?
So, to make a long story short, it is important when discussing these issue to avoid generalizations and simplifications of viewpoints. These questions are complex and quite subtle, and they are best approached with care.

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