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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: i think it's clear that the more we study, the more we find that there is to study, we can never accurately say "there is nothing more to discover" because we don't know what we haven't yet discovered! even the things that we know a lot about we can never be sure if there isn't more to them.
    the atom is a classic example. we keep discovering 'all' there is to know about them, then we discover that there are further divisions to the parts we know about. i wonder what a quark might consist of?
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      Feb 14 2013: That's great point, Ben. It sounds like you are saying that we have to be honest and humble about what we know and have considered.

      My grandfather likes to say: "If you don't know what you don't know, then you'll never know."
      • Feb 14 2013: that's a brilliant summation thank you!
        in my experience i've found that a lot of arguments happen because of people who don't know that they don't know or are working under the false assumption that they know. eg funding the space program vs cutting funding - "it's just a waste of money to go to mars, there's nothing there!"
      • Feb 14 2013: My Grandmother always says, "If you dont know ask, or find out".

        My Grandfather says, "there is no stupid question, only stupid people".

        Yep, my life ain't been an e-z ride.

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