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The Youth of Science

Several years ago, journalist John Horgan wrote a piece for Discover magazine titled “The Final Frontier”, on what he calls the end of science. He argues that we have discovered all the great ‘revelations’ and ‘revolutions’ of the pure sciences. His piece is certainly well-argued, but has a few problems.

Science is an exponential and progressive process. This is perhaps the most important single fact in this argument: all science has to build on previous discoveries. And without previous discoveries, we would never even know what questions to ask, much less how to go about answering them. If you look at it from the other direction, you note that any scientific discovery allows for more questions to be asked. Every new scientific theory creates the framework for the amendments and extrapolations and exceptions that keep scientists busy all their life – and these are hardly diminishing returns. The original theory of gravitation provided a theoretical framework for Galileian relativity, upon which special relativity was built, which was generalized to general relativity. These are successive improvements, and hardly diminishing. Each successive step allows for more complex technology, and also enables progression to the next step. We can’t now predict what we’ll learn in a few iterations of this process, just as Newton could never have predicted that we’d be using the nth iteration of his theory to calculate positions using the GPS satellite system – but we couldn’t be, not without relativity. Relativity isn’t just a minor improvement, understanding it is necessary to use the lower theories. Mr. Horgan’s argument is that much of science is minor advances which can’t lead to further research, which just isn’t true across the board.

I’m going to jump to quantum computing, which doesn’t make much sense to the reader at this point, but I promise it will. Quantum computing is widely espoused as the next generation of computers, improving computing speeds by some incredible factor – but we don’t have the scientific background to build one yet. Quantum computing would be a significant leap, whereas current advances in computing truly is producing only diminishing returns – slightly smaller chips, slightly faster transistors, slightly more storage, through improvements in design, but nothing fundamentally new. It’s only when we look at the next ‘generation’ – quantum computing – that we see the significant improvements that Mr. Horgan is expecting.

This is perhaps an easy example because we already know what one of the goals is – quantum computing. It’s a change from the diminishing returns of the semiconductor race to an entirely new system.

Shifting from technology into cosmology, let’s talk about the nature of the universe. Mr. Horgan says in his article that some mysteries about the nature of the universe are simply unsolvable, so I’d like to examine a few. It’s important to note that my argument is not “look at all these mysteries we can solve, clearly science isn’t dead yet”. That argument can easily be countered by saying that there is no evidence that these are not the ‘last’ mysteries – one could still argue that there is a finite amount we can learn, and that we are nearing that point. My argument is that we can continue to uncover new mysteries. While there are a significant amount – perhaps an infinite amount – of mysteries we can not solve, such as those ‘outside’ or ‘before’ our universe, there  may well also be a significant amount of mysteries we can solve.

The difference is simple. Ask of each theory whether it produces any detectable change in our universe. For example, questions about the origin of the universe before the big bang would produce no change in our universe, as no information from before the big bang could possibly have survived – the singularity at the beginning of our universe is thought of as ‘homogenous’, meaning that its only trait is its mass – there is no aspect of composition, or shape. The only relevant thing is that a certain amount of mass was concentrated at the beginning of the universe, and hypothesizing about anything else is best left to philosophers and those who dwell outside the realm of evidence. The same is true of any theory which hypothesizes alternate universes that can not interact with our universe – these are meaningless theories that can never be tested. But future scientists will be able to work with the theories that can be tested, such as quantum relativity and the big bang, and so on. Quantum gravity is one of the largest fields in theoretical physics, which is part of the search for a grand unified theory. Such a grand unified theory would probably end that particular line of physics, as once all the forces have been unified, there’s little reason to continue, but there are also questions as to how time works and why certain processes (like thermodynamics) only work in one direction, about the end of the universe, and about whether there exist phenomena in quantum mechanics that allow action at a distance – these are examples in physics that, in their resolution, could each provoke entire fields of study.

As an example as to where entire fields can come up where you wouldn’t expect them – string theory. String theory has long been demeaned by scientists, who call it unscientific because while it proposed a model for the makeup of quarks, leptons, and bosons that make up all matter, it didn’t actually make any new predictions. A small part of that theory, the part dealing with the interactions of black holes, seems to mirror the behavior of the qubits – entangled particles – that were mentioned before. This allows scientists to use string theory to predict the behavior of four qubits, a system we have never observed, and if it is found to be true, then at least that small part of string theory is found to be accurate. This would open up a new field of science, and eventually could produce advancements in technology.

Of course, it could also be some cosmic coincidence, in which case the scientists who always mocked string theory would have a nice laugh at the expense of the people who wrote the paper, but that’s just how science goes. A lot of people have a lot of ideas, and we eventually realize that a few of those ideas are slightly clever, and a small fraction of those are actually right.

We can never know what lies before our universe, or outside it, unless we discover some way to interact with other universes – but this is hardly a significant limitation. Our universe is huge, and there’s so much we haven’t seen. We’re still a race that is confined to one planet, using only a fraction of the energy available to us (a Kardashev type 0 civilization, which is a scale measuring the energy available to a race – type 1 is equivalent to all the power available on our planet, type 2 is equivalent to using the power of our sun). There are technological advances in our foreseeable future that will allow us to visit Mars and begin to populate it, and this will begin our true exploration of our solar system. Better telescopes and other observing satellites will allow us to make discoveries about some of the more exotic phenomena in our neighborhood. There is much to do.

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