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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 19 2013: I believe that from this point forward, science will continue to approach "scientific realism" indefinitely. This is because as humans, we seem to have reached a point where we are satisfied with the scientific knowledge we have acquired. We acknowledge that there is more to learn and develop, however, we choose to believe that we are not far off from "scientific realism". Unless an unforeseeable gaping hole is discovered in the scientific knowledge base of the our current world, I predict our scientific knowledge to approach the asymptote of "scientific realism" as t approaches infinity.
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      Feb 19 2013: Hi George,

      Your point is totally valid... but I'd like to point out that it is essentially identical to the historical statements of Kelvin and von Jolly.

      I'm a believer of the notion that history repeats itself, and I see a trend here. Countless intelligent people devote their entire lives to understanding our environment and how we interact with it, and eventually it becomes perfectly logical to assume that the major centers of the "scientific arena" have been identified. Then some benign discovery comes along and tears a gaping hole in our bubble of knowledge, sparking a race to explain this discovery. It's almost like the gold rush era in California - except there are seemingly unlimited supplies of gold.

      I like to envision the relationship between the known and unknown as a battlefront on an infinite plane. Sure, we continue to make advances, and that's great for society, but by no means does that guarantee or even imply that we are running out of unknown territory to conquer.

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