Another reader submission! I love it…especially when it’s written by a “real” scientist. I acknowledge my social “scientist” background, but social research by nature isn’t good at prediction, is rarely controllable, and often hardly replicable. But setting aside my pet peeve, how is today’s topic relevant to organizational issues? It may not be immediately relevant to all organizations, but it certainly has a large bearing on those emphasizing sciences and technology.
To claim that there is an “end of” some vast domain, the claimer(s) has to know it all; he alone defines the boundary of this domain. Just chew on that for a while. If one can draw a boundary, what’s outside that boundary? Furthermore, if we are running out of places for adventures or areas of knowledge to be explored, then, what’s the point of living? Not to mention, what can we offer to future generations? And make them excited to “explore” more?
Indeed, my guest post poses more philosophical contemplation than help to navigate organizational terrains. But what’s the downside?
Please let me know what you think.
Musings on The End Of
In a recent article “What adventures are actually left?” by de Castella, T.; Heyden, T., the authors make the disquieting assertion: “Exploration today is a dying art” and follow with the observation that “The new feats are often about endurance as much as discovery. Firsts are ever more specialist and technically defined – first successful dive at the north pole (Joseph MacInnis), first person to jetpack across the English Channel (Yves Rossy), oldest woman to climb Everest (Tamae Watanabe).”
This begs us to reflect upon the difference between exploration and adventure, and the authors launch such reflection later in the article: “Adventurers are there to find out about themselves. Exploration entails the discovery of novel or remote aspects of the natural world and communicating scientific learning.” I could rephrase this to say that adventuring is about us and our place in the world whereas exploring is about the world as it was, and frighteningly easily could be again, without us. Under this definition T. S. Eliot got it backwards albeit elegantly in his poem Little Gidding (“We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.”)
What happens to the vitality of our civilization, and of ourselves and our children, when we have truly run out of things to explore? What is there then, apart from ever greater challenges to our endurance? And since we know that our endurance will eventually succumb to challenge, i.e. every one of us will die, what is left to energize us? Shall we resign ourselves to eat, drink and be merry, and experience whatever adventure we can endure (and afford)? Or is there another path to personal and societal fulfillment?
Being myself a scientist, I take refuge in the immensity of scientific and technological unknowns and tell myself that I am fortunate that my mind can go where exploration and adventure coexist and often coincide. But even this refuge is threatened with an End that has been articulated by several writers perhaps most notably John Horgan in “The End of Science,” Addison-Wesley 1996. A few years ago I wrote several paragraphs musing on Horgan’s theme, which I copy below (otherwise unpublished). The conclusion I drew then is much the same as I draw now: While there is distinction that can be drawn between exploration and adventure and between scientific discovery and technological advance, and depending on how one draws the distinctions there is bound to be at least one End Of, in our beings there is still a place where there is amazement and fulfillment. The time may come when we know the place.
Musings on The End of Science
In his book “The End of Science” John Horgan openly wrote to the effect that the fundamental scientific fabric of the universe is now established, indeed it has been for at least a generation, and all future “scientific discovery” will fill its gaps or perhaps disturb a few of its strands but not challenge nor extend its overall structure. Despite (or if you prefer, because of) many privately-held suspicions that Mr. Horgan might be right, the publicly-voiced responses to his thesis tended toward the critical, even condemnatory, and fell into at least one of two broad categories:
- (a) The End of Science has been claimed before, self-evidently wrongly, thus this present claim must be wrong too;
- (b) Astronomy, biology, medicine, computation – the most popularly attended technical fields – are daily reporting fantastic advances, thus fantastic advances will continue as long as funding continues and the End of Science is nowhere in sight.
There is legitimate basis for criticizing Horgan. The End of Science (or, at least, the End of Physics) has indeed been claimed before, most notoriously in the late 19th century when Max Planck was advised that physics was a closed subject in which no new discovery of any importance was possible. Choosing to ignore this advice, Planck studied the energy distribution of light and announced in 1900 that the distribution could be described mathematically only by introducing a constant “h” that had no place, and no explanation, in the physical understanding of the day. From this discovery emerged quantum mechanics and atomic physics, a new physical understanding which itself has solidified into dogma. Technologically fruitful dogma to be sure, which has enabled the discovery of the transistor, the laser, and the atomic bomb, but dogma nevertheless, doomed in its turn to be displaced by some new paradigm built around physics soon to be discovered. To proponents of response (a), Horgan’s prediction of the End of Science belongs with previous predictions as humorous footnotes in future textbooks.
And who can argue with the proponents of response (b)? Living creatures are cloned, computers become more powerful, new pharmaceuticals are more specific and effective, and everywhere we look we are overwhelmed by the vitality of our scientific and technological enterprise. This must be the beginning of Science, not its End!
But can Horgan be dismissed so easily? If we look more deeply at the flurry of fantastic advances, what do we see? A new planet is discovered from analysis of the subtle motions of a distant star. Science, yes, and beautiful science, but is this new science or yet another manifestation of Newtonian dynamics? A sheep is cloned. Is this new science or the inevitable consequence of the discovery of DNA? A new drug is announced that promises cure for an incurable disease. Is this new science, or yet another confirmation that every disease has some tangible cause that is vulnerable to the right chemistry?
If Horgan had titled his book “The End of New Science” or “Every Scientist is Now Into Technology” it would probably have enjoyed a few days of polite discussion before plummeting into oblivion. But he chose his title and it falls on us to ponder if we do indeed face “The End of Science” or if we are “running out of ‘new science’,” and whether these are fundamentally the same. And perhaps this is a useful transmutation of the questions central to Mr. Horgan’s book. Is there any “new science”? Newton’s laws, Planck’s constant, helical DNA – Someone’s been there and done them. What’s left? Have we run out of “new science”? And if we haven’t run out yet, is it nevertheless inevitable that we will some day? All the fantastic advances of the late 20th century – Are any of them “new science,” are they all better described as “new technologies”?
These questions matter to the extent that our technological future will be shaped by the answers. Suppose it be true that we have “run out of ‘new science’.” We then confidently expect that, for example, the chemistry and materials science of the new century will consist of, and only of, ever more cunning ways to combine known elements. There will be new materials and new reactions but they will have recognizable relationships to those already known. Conversely, suppose it be true that we have not “run out of ‘new science’.” We can still expect ever more cunning combinations of known elements but we should watch as well for more startling discoveries, discoveries which will not have recognizable roots in today’s understanding. Just as Planck’s constant had no place in the physics of 1900.
At this point the writer relaxes, mentally reviews again the wonderful interviews recorded in Horgan’s book, the barrage of information in the technical journals, and places a few bets of his own.
The writer bets that yes, indeed, the chemistry and materials science of the new century will consist of, and only of, ever more cunning ways to combine known elements. New materials and new reactions will be abundant but all will have recognizable relationships to those already known.
The bet on physics is that there is still “new science” awaiting us. There is an eerie similarity between the situation in 1900, when physics seemed complete except for an inexplicable quantum constant “h”, and the situation in 2000, where physics seems complete except for some spooky aspects of quantum correlations. For the moment these are collected under headings like “Bose condensate,” “quantum teleportation,” “quantum entanglement,” “quantum encryptation.” Watch them.
Not all observers would associate biology and computation, but the writer notes that both are intimately involved with information: Biology uses information to control its chemistry and, conversely, chemistry to manipulate its information; computation uses electricity to manipulate information and information to control electricity. The writer bets there will be developments interconnecting biology and computation in ways that will be unrecognizable owing to their complexity, thus appearing as “new science.” Societal and economic forces will continue to drive molecular biology, genetic manipulation, drug discovery, and cloning (of cells, tissue, organs, and organisms), but new developments here will be recognizably related to the familiar.
And the least risky bet of all: Response (b) is accurate and the flood of new technology will continue, unchecked, until some ecological or socio-political disaster, which our scientists will abate but not prevent, befalls our civilization. Whether or not we accept Horgan’s thesis that Science has Ended, it isn’t over until it’s over.
Till next week,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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