The next fifty years: it is all in the mind

My magazine of choice, (The) New Scientist, released its first issue 50 years ago, and more recently followed up with a hefty anniversary issue.

Reading news (or watching or browsing them for that matter) is a waste of time if you want to be informed or enlightened. I have argued before that instead of following flickering interpretations of what just happened it is better to use sources like New Scientist get an insight into what is going to happen.

Self-conscious at 50, New Scientist looked backwards for its New Zeitgeist in news articles past, as well as forward in inviting predictions for the following 50 years. While both are good reads, true to form it is the present, in the “Big Questions“, that this issue shines. One present but unasked question is the role of science itself.

A test to determine the kind of action a scientific branch has is to look at the reaction. Since the time Galileo run afoul of his pope astronomy has annoyed nobody (well, dark astronomy annoyed me, which shows promise). The last public uproar based on physics were the anti-nuclear demonstrations in the 80’s. There may be sufficient smokestacks left to give chemistry a bad name, but this is not where the battles lie. Meanwhile information has been the most recent inclusion into the physical system, and with the widest impact the last few decades. That notwithstanding all the theory was fairly established by the time the first issue of New Scientist was published, and thereafter nothing much has happened, and not that much is going to happen either.

Advances in physical science and computer science is now in the realm of usability studies and market research. It is no longer iconoclastic in nature, fundamental world views are no longer turned over by breakthroughs in physics. We will probably never return to the rapid and fundamental advances in the golden era of the late 19th century and the early 20th century. The physical sciences are a part of the establishment. Einstein is an icon, and we use quantum physics when we try to understand the world. If you observe two connected butterflies causing a storm a cat will die while staying alive, therefore if something is sufficiently garbled it is scientifically proven.

Biology on the other hand is upsetting. Christians largely in USA and Muslims largely outside of USA are rallying against Darwin, in a truly impressive display of rear-guard action. What other scientific theory of that venerable age can still muster the troops this way? But it isn’t just the implicit threat to creation myths that gets us going. Genetic engineering, cloning, stem cell research… You name it, we protest against it.

Back to the big questions and the long forecasts. With some exceptions we were relieved of the hyperbole. Fifty years is not a long time, half a lifetime or thereabout. The world in the 1950s was very different in flavour to ours, but it wasn’t truly alien. The world in 2050 won’t be either. The forecasts in physics were largely completist in nature, reminiscent of card collectors, “if we just got these two missing cards we’re complete”. Based on past experience we will learn more if this completition project fails, but in any case an uninspiring outlook for us non-collectors.

I am much more enthralled that we are well on our way to discovering our past. Thanks to the invention of writing we have known tales from the past for quite many generations now, but what about the unwritten stories? Fossils may be among the oldest things around, but they have been new to us. As Andrew Knoll noted, most of the the artifacts of life and civilization remain in the ground undiscovered, but fifty years from now most will have been found. Non-intrusive survey methods will cover all the land mass as well as the seas. Digging for artifacts and fossils will not be the only way of inquiry. From the human genome project of the last decade, the neandertal genome project is well on its way. We are set to discover not only who we are but how we got to be, much of it from archelogical evidence in living genes in addition to communing with the recent dead.

Applied biology is provocative enough. But when it really goes home to ourselves it will be hard to ignore. Several of the articles touched the fleeting worry that when science has disposed of free will the way it did to phlogiston or the aether, what would prevent us from doing harm as it isn’t our fault anyway?

This is reminiscent of when 18th and 19th century science gutted God good, the raised concern was how a society could survive and prosper without the fear of God to scare people into subordination. As you know we still turned out pretty allright. Demystifying our own behaviour will not make us into irresponsible people even though in a deeper sense we aren’t responsible for ourselves. Put the other way around proving the illusory existence of self would not turn previously selfish people any more selfless. I may not exist but I still want that car.

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  1. “We will probably never return to the rapid and fundamental advances in the golden era of the late 19th century and the early 20th century.”From wikipedia about Max Planck, the guy who found the quantum: —snip—The Munich physics professor Philipp von Jolly advised him against going into physics, saying, “in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few holes.”—snip—Or, to quote Rummie: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”Never say never (c;=

  2. I have strong psychological barriers against saying “never”, it is a word that makes me itch. That said, particularly the three decades on either side of 1900 had stunning developements in the understanding of physics and there has been no comparable period before or since, though the late 17th century could have been a contender.

  3. I think we’re doing pretty well right now. Just look at all that dark matter and dark energy out there. Who knows what that is. Maybe there’s something really big hidden in that, just as what turned out to be the case when Planck explained the blackbody radiation spectrum by introducing the quantum into physics. And there’s plenty of stuff going on in quantum optics and such. I believe our scientific culture has evolved to be closer together, sharing small progress etc. And with media available today information doesn’t take long to get from A to B. Everything is reported everywhere. Back then, hardly anything was reported – except for the really big stuff. But then again, as you say, the years until WWII were really big in terms of science.

  4. dmm writes:”This is reminiscent of when 18th and 19th century science gutted God good, the raised concern was how a society could survive and prosper without the fear of God to scare people into subordination. As you know we still turned out pretty allright.” I disagree that God was gutted good. What was gutted was the idea that merely saying “God does it that way” is an acceptable explanation for how the world works. Example: “Things fall down because God wills them to fall down.” But the teleological explanation is not rendered invalid or useless by Newton’s law of gravity, any more than Newton’s law of gravity is rendered invalid or useless by general relativity. The various answers satisfy different needs. I agree that many people abandoned God as soon as they got a sufficiently satisfactory scientific answer to their “whys,” but I would argue that they threw the baby out with the bath water.As for turning out alright: We have not self-destructed (yet), but the 20th century was certainly violent and atrocity-ridden. And keep in mind that most people still fear God. Even among non-religious people, most are agnostics who hedge their bets with good behavior.

  5. Sure, in effect what happened in those centuries was that science strengthed some forces in Christianity and weakened others as scientific inquiry conflicted with established religious dogma. Another way to see it is that Christianity evolved. Maybe an odd analogy, but it is reminiscent of Microsoft and the Internet. Microsoft had gotten dominance in crucial software when the Internet came along (the Internet predated Microsoft just like science predated Christianity, but as disruptive forces they were newer). The faction that wanted to coopt the Internet won out over the faction that wanted to fight it, and Microsoft evolved into an Internet company. The impact the scientific revolution had on Christianity, and later on other religions, was profound. I think “gutted good” is a fair description. Not only did you get that God is Dead in the 19th century and outspoken atheism, religion had lost a lot of its traditional territory, like creation myths. There is nothing in science to prevent the existence an external creator, but it doesn’t depend on it either.I do find it interesting that this old science/religion struggle still carries on, both with fundamentalist Christians and hardline rationalist scientists. I don’t think either position is that healthy, but they obviously do have a niche.The 20th century was certainly a fascinating century and the bloodiest in history, primarily due to events around the two world wars. However if you view it differently, at the risk a 20th century citizen had of dying a violent death, or dying of disease or starvation, it didn’t look bad at all.Since the majority of people are Chinese or Indian, the statement that most people fear God would mean that at least this majority fear God which they don’t in the Christian sense, though there are similar mechanisms at play in South/East Asia too. What I can say is that of all the non-religious people I’ve ever met, which vastly outnumber the religious ones, “hedging the bet with a God” has never been an issue with even one of them. If they had wanted to do that they could have become a Christian or a non-practising Muslim (though not both), it is dead simple and neither religion accept non-members to the afterlife.We are nice because it is so hard for us not to. It is so much easier on us to be good than to be bad.


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