[Radio National Main Page] Radio National
with Robyn Williams
on Sunday 30/08/1998



A criticism of a book by John Horgan which argues that pure sciences could be reaching their end. The author of this talk disagrees with this argument.


Robyn Williams: It's fashionable, as we approach that ever so round date in 16 months' time, to write "End of" books. The End of History, the End of Science and so on. I now look forward to books on The End of Economics, The End of Poverty, or even The End of Books with End of in the Title.

Dr David Wiltshire feels the same. He heard John Horgan talk on the Science Show a while back about his book, The End of Science. He was so cross, he decided to write this talk.

Dr David Wiltshire is Research Fellow in mathematical physics at the University of Adelaide.

David Wiltshire: Is it possible that pure sciences could be reaching their end? John Horgan, a senior writer from Scientific American, has written a book arguing just this, and enough people have bought it that he has now put out a paperback.

The jist of Horgan's argument is that great discoveries - such as the theories of evolution, relativity and plate tectonics - can only be made once. Science has been outstandingly successful at answering fundamental questions in the past two centuries, and as we approach the next millenium the only deep questions left are those such as: How did life originate? What is consciousness? What is an elementary particle? How did the Universe originate?

Current attempts at answering such questions are very speculative. Horgan believes that this is due to the nature of the questions. He contends some things are simply not knowable given the limits of our minds and possible technologies; so attempting to answer these questions is an exercise verging on literary criticism - he dubs it "ironic science". A prime illustration is the attempts of physicists to unify quantum mechanics and general relativity. To outsiders we appear to be on a "religious quest" for a mathematically beautiful holy grail, and spend all our time discussing intrinsically untestable hypotheses.

Wrong. This "quest" is demanded by the fact that, although they are marvellously successful theories, quantum mechanics and general relativity nevertheless do break down. We cannot say with any certainty what goes on inside black holes or near the beginning of the Universe. That may seem distant to the average mortal but it is the realm of science. Science involves the formulation of testable hypotheses and testing them. At the moment we are stuck on formulating mathematically consistent hypotheses in quantum gravity; but if you consider that there were over 200 years between Newton and Einstein, the 40 odd years we have been engaged on this problem are really very short. Einstein could never have arrived at general relativity if he had not known about Riemannian geometry, which was devised in the nineteenth century as a seemingly arcane field of pure mathematics.

To be sure, the availability of firm data is what transforms a science from being speculative into something hardcore. In physics we have reached the limit of producing the highest energies that governments are prepared to pay for given the limits of current technology. However, we can observe distant quasars and the beginning of the Universe where the highest energies reign. Observational cosmology will take over where experimental particle physics cannot yet go. Since we have no control over the laboratory conditions of the early universe many different independent measurements will be required to test any hypothesis with confidence. Observational cosmology is still in its infancy. However, even now the inflationary universe scenario - something that Horgan wrote off as untestable - is being tested against the spectra of primordial perturbations in the cosmic microwave radiation.

This may all seem terribly irrelevant to mankind at the end of the twentieth century, but as long as a such a fundamental theory as that of gravity is incomplete, it is possible, just possible, that we could be in for some major surprises, surprises that could even transform our everyday technologies. Since no obvious attempt at reconciling quantum mechanics with general relativity has worked, the chances of a major revolution are far from zero. As yet unproven ideas such extra dimensions may seem outlandish, but the vast majority of our current technology is based on the notion of an invisible electromagnetic field, something which would have been viewed as suspiciously occult in Galileo's time.

Imagine a world in which a deeper understanding of fundamental physics will give us the technologies to reach to the stars and maybe even make contact with extra-terrestrial civilizations. Such an event, distant though it may be, would revolutionise human culture, as well as fundamentally changing the life sciences in completely unimagined ways. Horgan argues that the probability of this is extremely small, but it is impossible to assign such probabilities when there are still vast gaps in our most fundamental theories. It would be foolish to argue that physics is even half-finished; geology and biology are hopelessly primitive given the small sample of planets and lifeforms we have had a look at to date, and sociology has only barely started. There are probably many really fundamental scientific questions we have not even thought of yet.

Horgan seeks to rubbish all present attempts at addressing the deep questions by poking fun at the pretentious scientific primadonnas of the day, most of whom he has interviewed. As such his book is little more than a science gossip column, which will surely be forgotten in 500 years time. So why bother getting upset about this stuff? The problem is that in the present down-sizing climate pure science is up against the wall, and "end-of-pure-science" sentiments are a convenient excuse for government and academic administrators eager to cut budgets. One of the administrators currently involved in attempts to destroy the distinction between the separate disciplines of physics, mathematics, chemistry and earth sciences at Flinders University, is on the record as saying there has been "a shift in what science is used for. Twenty years ago, it was nuclear energy and particle colliders; today, it is water quality and environmental management." That university's science activities are to be reoriented to suit existing local industries since, to quote again, "the declared interests of the public lie in areas such as marine science, information technology, water management, waste treatment".

There is no doubt that science has expanded at a stupendous rate in recent decades, producing the impatient "me now" attitudes of those who are quick to write the frontiers of pure science off as unknowable if they can't have all the answers in their lifetime. We are all future-shocked by lifestyles changed by the technological wonders we have produced, battle-weary after all those 60 hour weeks we have to put in to stay in the academic rat race in a climate of diminishing resources and ever more bean-counting. It is this malaise which is the cancer currently eating away at pure sciences.

In Australia student numbers in areas such as physics are declining, not because physics is any less relevant today, but because our service teaching is being clawed back from us. Students majoring in pure sciences have always been, and will always, be numerically smaller than those in professional courses. University departments today are formula-funded, mainly on the basis of the number of students they teach. When a government chooses to cut university spending overall, academics in faculties such as medicine, dentistry and engineering can decide that in order to maintain their own funding, well, ... perhaps their students don't need to learn physics any more; they themselves will teach a replacement course and increase their own student load.

After all, Australia doesn't produce much that is truly original; most engineers are going to end up as managers. There is a prevailing attitude that everything is all right because Australians can dig their wealth out of the ground and ship it somewhere else to be manufactured. It bodes ill for the day, albeit still some way off, when Australians will have to live by their wits.

At the same time, there has been a dumbing down in school science and mathematics curricula, towards something approaching the American system, without the compensating factor that American students have four years of coursework for a B.Sc., and an extra two years coursework before embarking on a Ph.D. as opposed to our one year of Honours. In many overseas universities students have to complete a basic science year before entering professional courses. In Britain, which has also recently experienced a dumbing down in school curricula, the basic B.Sc. in subjects such as physics has been lengthened from three to four years in order to maintain standards. In Australia the task of maintaining standards in a three-year timeframe, while starting with less well prepared students, puts extra pressures on our students and on our student numbers.

Administrators are reluctant to address these real problems facing physical sciences because, God forbid, it might require setting strong academic policies about what is taught in university courses, or it might require making somebody pay for extra years of tuition. "End-of-science" nonsense is a very convenient excuse that allows administrators to dodge the issues.

Let me give two examples that demonstrate why asking questions in pure science is absolutely relevant to society and the economy.

When I was a Ph.D. student a postdoctoral fellow in my group, Nathan Myhrvold, quit theoretical physics to form a computer company in Silicon Valley. When he visited us in Cambridge a few years later he told us that the company had been so successful it had been bought up by Microsoft. Nowadays when I pick up Time magazine I occasionally see Nathan being interviewed - he is now director of research at Microsoft, Bill Gates' "right-hand man". Nathan's training was in inflationary cosmology, not computer systems engineering. Nathan is just one prominent example; other former colleagues have founded their own technology companies or have made millions on Wall Street. Essentially, bright people are attracted by the challenges posed by asking the hardest questions of pure science. The intellectual skills gained by attempting to answer these questions in turn give them the power to challenge the world in any field of endeavour, and to be adaptable to change from one career to another.

On a recent visit to Australia Bill Gates was encouraged to set up in Adelaide by our state Enterprises Minister. It is a typical ex-colonial attitude to believe the road to success involves inviting the new world elite to our shores. I would argue the real way to success is to encourage basic science; create opportunities for the bright young people who will decide to challenge Bill Gates, and who will risk being bought up by him. Gates understands this very well; he has just set up Microsoft research labs in Cambridge, a place where the value of basic research is well appreciated.

Attempts a couple of years ago to set up a National Institute of Theoretical Physics in Adelaide, similar to the Isaac Newton Institute at Cambridge, foundered, because there was no scheme under which the Australian physics community could apply for national funds to run it. At the same time many millions were squandered on an MFP which failed because it was basically modelled as a real estate venture. As long as those in government misunderstand the role and value of basic science Australia will continue to fail.

Another example of the value of pure science is the effort of Australian physicists who are engaged in developing the technology to make gravitational wave observatories. Such observatories will provide firm data about what goes on near black holes. They will also enable us to "listen" to events that occurred soon after the Big Bang, at times which are presently inaccessible to us, since with telescopes based on electromagnetic radiation it is impossible to see beyond the surface of the microwave background to the very early times when the universe was opaque. This is precisely the hard data needed to nail down speculative theories of gravitation.

Gravitational wave detection requires clocks much more accurate than anything commercially available. In response to this challenge David Blair's team at the University of Western Australia have developed the world's most stable clocks. Many industries are naturally interested in the sapphire clock, and Blair's group now has a high-tech export enterprise.

Asking fundamental questions will always demand innovative technologies and physicists will always deliver. Our modern world has essentially been defined by technologies that physicists first pioneered, everything from nuclear power to microwave ovens to the world-wide-web. Even now physicists are thinking about computers which will compute quantum mechanically rather than classically. These computers are a long way off as yet, but they will revolutionise computing. Because the development of such devices involves understanding very basic physical principles, and possibly learning new things about those principles, it is physicists rather than engineers who are involved.

The fundamental questions of science still exist and are still relevant. Don't let anyone fool you otherwise. If you are an ambitious high school student embarking on university studies you should not be thinking, as so many do, about "what job will I have at the end?" The nature of jobs will keep on changing as physicists invent new technologies which invent new jobs. Many courses will lead to a career of filling in boxes in Microsoft software, but few will enable you to challenge Bill Gates. If you choose to challenge your mind, asking the exciting questions at the frontiers of pure science, you will find that your only limits are your own abilities and imagination.

Robyn Williams: Dr David Wiltshire is Research Fellow in Mathematical Physics at the University of Adelaide. And I look forward to a book, who knows, written by an Australian, called The End of Negativity.

Next week Professor Peter Fensham takes the argument further by asking what scientific knowledge is useful after we've left school and are getting on with the rest of our lives. I'm Robyn Williams.

Guests on this program:

Dr David Wiltshire
Dept. of Physics and Mathematical Physics
University of Adelaide
Adelaide S.A. 5005

Book mentioned in this talk was written by John Horgan,
Title: The End of Science

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