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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: Hi Yaron!

    The question you pose is one that I find that many people ponder throughout their lives. It is a difficult one because I think we all know that humanity will never really achieve a full understanding of all of science. However, we still can't help but feel sometimes that we are very close. You quoted prestigious people that have stated similar thoughts. When studying science, it is simple to envision a world in which everything can make sense to us. But this just confirms our limited perception.

    I find it scary to admit that humans do not have the ability to conquer the scientific world. It will continue to amaze and inspire us in many different ways that are beyond our control.
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      Feb 14 2013: Thanks for your thoughtful response, Hadar.

      I think you bring up a good point about the scary and daunting thought of never achieving a complete knowledge of the universe. I also find it interesting that--and this has come up a few times already--this doesn't seem to discourage us. Human curiosity has proven quite resilient, even when many do not believe in an end goal. I guess it's the passional experience that keeps us going rather than the end result.

      You wrote, "I think we all know that humanity will never really achieve a full understanding of all of science." I wouldn't be so sure. What I've found so interesting and what I've learned in bringing this up to family and peers is that people tend to be very sure one way or the other.
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      Feb 16 2013: Why should we even WANT a full understanding of the universe? There are a lot of real patterns out there that are just useless as far as we're concerned. The fact that we're limited in virtue of our perceptual capacities, spatio-temporal location, and technology isn't a problem, but rather a useful limit on what we ought to attend to. I'm not even sure what a full understanding of the universe would consist in; why not just focus on understanding patterns that are useful for realizing the kinds of goals we have, both as individuals and as a species?
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        Feb 17 2013: Professor, I agree with you on a practical level. It is certainly hard to interpret "full understanding of the universe," and we are probably better off with limited abilities.

        But do you not acknowledge the innate human (and maybe most species?--they just aren't as successful?) desire to grow in understanding and dominance of the universe? This may be a meaningless aspiration and it probably does us well to overcome it, but it seems to be a shared human sentiment across generations. I think this may be what Hadar was reffering to as scary.
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      Feb 20 2013: The short answer is no, we most likely wont be able to uncover all of the scientific secrets of the world.

      To delve deeper, lets think about how the world seemed to scientists before the microscopic world was unlocked when Rober Hooke saw "little rooms" and called them cells. This opened the door to a whole new realm of science which only further opened doors to even more realms (i.e. quantum theory, microbiology, etc.). In fact, this month, scientists were able to "program" bacteria to function as simple logic gates and even remember past computations! This type of discovery could lead to an entire new world of technology! Things are yet to be discovered, and we can even begin to imagine where those discoveries will take us.

      Now, lets Zoom out. Let us assume we do conquer the science of our world... There is still so many other worlds and solar systems and galaxies that have different sets of science hereunto unknown to our planet! While this approach may seem far-fetched (and maybe outside the scope of your question), I think it's quite unlikely that young bright scientists will one day just sit in their labs, playing with their microscopes because they have nothing to do.

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