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Yaron Tokayer

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Will humankind ever achieve an end to science history?

My bioelectricity class is half science and half history. When we bring up a new topic, we often first pause to set its historical backdrop from a political and experimental perspective. This is particularly interesting, given that in bioelectricity, experiments date back several hundred years, but are also unfolding every day (quite literally, if we consider that ion channels are proteins whose foling structures are a topic of this field -- see http://fold.it/portal/ for a link to the fold it protein folding game taking the world by storm). But when I try to consider new research, I find myself feeling viscerally skeptical of our own time's limited perspective on our own accomplishments to date.

Phillip von Jolly, Planck's professor at Munich, is pretty much solely known for falsely predicting of physics that, "in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes." Similarly, Lord Kelvin is said to have proclaimed that "there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement." Both of these quotes were said at the dawn of the quantum era. I think we humans tend to assume that we are at the end of history, that all scientific and social progress has culminated to the present.

The question I would like to pose is whether or not science is at least honing in on an absolute reality--what philosophers call "scientific realism." Are we getting closer--converging--to the end of scientific discovery with each paradigm shift, or do we just recast how we understand the world in a different vocabulary? From one perspective, the miasma theory of disease, which preceded today's germ theory, was thought to be approximately accurate experimentally, just like today's germ theory is "approximately accurate" as far as it's clinical effectiveness. Is there a truth of nature behind a curtain for us to discover? If there is, are humans capable of acieving it?


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    Feb 14 2013: Yaron- a very interesting question.

    I like to think that there are plethora of things that are still undiscovered and will probably remain undiscovered for hundreds of years. Obviously, as we progress each year into the future, we are converging on some form of close, but our Earth is such a remarkable place, and that endpoint is distances away.

    I am no expert in quantum physics, but if Kelvin and von Jolly believe their fields is left completely discovered, there are many other scientific fields that are continuously growing and expanding. Alternative forms of energy will be constantly researched, technological advancements will always grow from year to year, theories will be accepted without ever being proven... I see no end. Therefore, I don't believe there is a curtain laid out for us to discover.
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      Feb 17 2013: Hi Joseph,
      I like the point you made about new and emerging scientific fields continuously growing. I do feel like no matter how much we learn, we simply uncover more unanswered questions. In any time period, it is hard to imagine a world of which we know so little. Even in the time of Jolly and Kelvin, it must have felt as though they had explained so much, learned so much about how the world works, what could possibly be left? Even now, it is hard to imagine what earth-shattering discovery could come next. I definitely feel that although we may be converging in some sense, it could also be thought of as diverging because each breakthrough we make simply opens a door to a thousand more potential breakthroughs.
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      Feb 19 2013: Hi Joseph and Neema!

      I completely agree with both of you. I believe that there is an ever expanding list of questions that are yet be answered, and that it grows with every new discovery made. If I were to describe what I imagine to be the "end" of scientific discovery, I would bring up two concepts: mimicry and regeneration. It is said that only truly know a subject or a concept when you can teach it to someone else. Likewise, I think the end of science will arrive when every system can be reproduced artificially or not. Being able to regenerate or build any existing system (this includes neural signals, digestive and circulatory systems, etc in organisms) means that ultimate understanding of the system.
      Even at that point, the never ended search for ultimate efficiency begins where a system can be redefined and rebuilt over and over again to achieve the highest efficiency model. There is always more work to be done!

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