Wednesday, August 25, 2010

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF JOHN HORGAN’S THE END OF SCIENCE

It is difficult to know just how to treat this book. It has many serious faults.

It is well-written, was a best seller, but its very subject is to my mind a rather eccentric notion, and the author does some quite annoying things in writing about it.

By the term “end of science” the author does not mean a return to the Dark Ages but a time when all the large and exciting discoveries and theories all will have been established, leaving only relatively small subjects to science. It is the kind of notion that might pass through any thoughtful person’s mind, but I think it one that is quickly dismissed.

The interest in the book has to do with the eminent figures interviewed and not with the author’s speculations.

The author is not a scientist, but he is scientifically literate and does write pieces for magazines like Scientific American, and I am not automatically put off by the idea of inspired non-experts writing on any subject.

Perhaps the first serious fault is the way the author approaches the subject. What we have is a series of interviews with eminent figures, many of them scientists but many are social scientists or philosophers. A great deal is hidden in that word “interview.” These are relatively short interviews or conversations at conventions or discussions on the telephone.

With every live interview, no matter how brief, the author offers a concise description of the subject, some being amusing or interesting, but all highly colored and none strictly appropriate for a book on science or ideas. I regard this as padding, especially in light of how little of the subjects’ thoughts on the book’s theme the author captures. One also could fairly argue, in light of what we eventually learn of the author’s views, that these are used as devices to prejudice readers towards or away from interview subjects.

The subject is provocative, of course, thus perhaps giving the author entrée in some cases which he otherwise might not have been given, and, of course, it also helps sales

I do think, considering at least a half dozen of the world’s eminent intellects were interviewed, that the space allotted to each subject’s thought is sketchy at best. This perhaps stems from the author’s experience in writing relatively short articles but also likely reflects the effort to keep things zippy rather than genuinely thoughtful – what one might expect from most best sellers I’m afraid.

The author insists on using words that to my mind no longer are part of science, chief among these beings “laws” and “truth.”

Law is a genuinely outdated concept applied to science, although it is still somewhat carelessly used for theories of long standing. What we have in modern science are hypotheses or theories or conjectures which seem to describe our observations of phenomena but are subject to being endlessly tested against new observations and perhaps discarded.

Science is quite ruthless about ideas. When they cease working, they are set aside and replaced by others that work better. So long as a theory continues to fit new observations – and remember our scientific instruments are almost constantly improving in accuracy and scope of application and even in the measurement of things never before measured – it is viewed as useful and, in a strictly limited sense, valid.

But there are no laws in science truly today, even if phrases carrying over from the 19th century are sometimes used. Each time we rise to another perspective in looking at a phenomenon – as by the new acuteness of our instruments or building upon a new and very convincing theory or doing a kind of experiment never before done - we sometimes begin to see observations, including previous ones, in a new way. A new theory or conjecture replaces the established one, and the process continues so long as we are able to progress.

Einstein replaced Newton, but Newton still serves perfectly well under limited conditions to give the results he always did, and, as Einstein himself suggested, he will himself one day be displaced in the same way by an even more encompassing perspective.

None of these great men’s works is regarded as law: they are useful relationships which are valued and retained so long as they continue to be useful.

And none of these theories represents “truth” except in the highly limited sense that when under such-and-such conditions we may expect this-or-that.

Nothing in all of physics has any existence in reality – if we may posit such a thing as reality – neither quarks nor electrons nor electromagnetic spectra: these are our way of describing phenomena to ourselves in useful, consistent, and measurable ways, but they are not, as it were, snap shots of nature.

There is no reason known for this process ever to stop, unless we bump up against limits of perception or understanding, a possibility discussed briefly in the book but which is as utterly speculative and useless today as notions like the mind-body problem of philosophy.

I’ll leave it to readers to discover the intense experience of years ago that motivates the author: I would only suggest that someone dropped LSD into something he consumed.

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