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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 20 2013: In response to your quotes, I would make this clinical assertion. I would argue objectively that von Jolly was absolutely right in his comment. Remember the field he was delving into. Classical physics as a field was certainly near the end of its usefulness. It already quantified and explained nearly every objective the field had deemed to be important. In that lens, the holes were not important. What happened with the beginning of the quantum age of physics was just as you said a paradigm shift. Each paradigm shift changes two crucial things. The goal of the age and the methodology in which attempts are made to fulfill them.

    Think of each paradigm as a lens of a microscope. In each lens, a certain level of structure can be seen. Attempts to define that structure define our knowledge of it. But eventually there comes a point in which no further data can be ascertained by that level of focus, even if there be small holes or fuzzy lines in the scope. From the viewpoint of the original objective to define the lens, the goal is essentially complete. The fuzzy lines or holes have small relative effect in the larger objective of the lens.

    But there will always be people bothered by the holes and fuzzy lines. In order to investigate those, a fundamental paradigm shift must occur, In the new lens, nothing has yet been discovered. The process repeats. Eventually however one must conclude that absolute uncertainty must at some point be the limiting factor in which out paradigm may be allowed to focus.

    The questions then is zooming out once more and editing those holes and fuzzy lines.

    Because of the very nature of paradigms and truly that of humanity, there are relatively short periods of time in which scientific theory appears mostly vacant. The rest of the time (until a shift occurs) it must by effect appear to be nearing conclusion. I think of the macroscopic population theory of punctuated equilibrium. Many changes occur very rapidly then relative stagnancy.

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