Is the age of scientific discovery ending?
The age of scientific discovery may be nearing its end as the limits of the human mind make further breakthroughs impossible, leading scientists have said.
By Heidi Blake
Published: 12:03PM BST 23 Sep 2010
Experts say the “low hanging fruit” of scientific knowledge, such as the laws of motion and gravity, was attained using simple methods in previous centuries, leaving only increasingly impenetrable problems for modern scientists to solve.
Uncharted areas of science are now so complex that even the greatest minds will struggle to advance human understanding of the world, they claim.
In addition, the remaining problems are becoming so far removed from our natural sensory range that they require increasingly powerful machines, such as the Large Hadron Collider, even to approach them.
Russell Stannard, professor emeritus of physics at the Open University, argues that although existing scientific knowledge will continue to be applied in news ways, "the gaining of knowledge about fundamental laws of nature and the constituents of the world, that must come to an end”.
He said: “We live in a scientific age and that’s a period that’s going to come to an end at some stage. Not when we’ve discovered everything about the world but when we’ve discovered everything that’s open to us to understand.”
In his new book The End of Discovery, which is released on Thursday, Professor Stannard argues that it is impractical to go on building ever larger and more powerful machines to keep seeking new breakthroughs. M-Theory – Stephen Hawking’s preferred explanation of the content of the universe – could not be tested without a particle accelerator the size of a galaxy.
His views are shared by George Johnson, a US science author whose most recent book, The 10 Most Beautiful Experiments, documents the groundbreaking discoveries that were once made using the simplest methods.
The book describes how Galileo discovered the laws of motion by rolling marbles down a plank and Isaac Newton used prisms to grasp the nature of colour.
“I felt a need to get back to basics, to the time when one person with one mind and one pair of hands could design an apparatus that would pose a question to nature and then receive a crisp, unambiguous answer,” he told the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4.
But he believes that such fundamental discoveries are moving ever further out of reach because it is impossible to probe the remaining mysteries of the universe without assembling a vast team and having access to increasingly complex technology.
Not all experts agree that the sun is setting on the age of scientific discovery. Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society, believes that there are still big questions to be asked about the content of the universe, human genetics and how life began on earth.
“All these things depend on more data and they are also helped a lot by computers,” he told the programme. “But I think there may be some aspects of reality we can’t understand or some questions we can’t pose.
“Just as a monkey doesn’t worry about how it evolved whereas we understand Darwinism, there may be a problem which we haven’t been able to conceive.
“So I agree with Russell to the extent that there may be some aspects of reality that are beyond human brains, but maybe computers can help”.
Is the age of scientific discovery ending? - Telegraph