Nothing new under the sun
Is there anything left to discover? Robert Lambourne explores a work that suggests science has a limited future.
The end is nigh! With the passing of the 20th century fewer than a thousand days away, the appearance of a number of "End of . . ." books is only to be expected. The End of History, The End of Physics and The End of Time are among those that have already taken their places on the bookshelves. So it is not surprising that The End of Science is joining them. What is surprising is that this particular volume should turn out to be such a fine example of popular science writing.
Accessible, argumentative, stimulating, informative, highly polished and hugely enjoyable - this is a feast of a book. Indeed, it is such a rich feast that the main danger facing a reader with time to spare is that of trying to consume too much at a single sitting. That would be a shame, because this is a book that deserves to be savoured rather than guzzled.
The central thesis of The End of Science is that most of the major scientific discoveries have already been made. Accordingly, science, if it has not already done so, must soon enter a post-empirical phase in which it will more and more come to resemble "ironic" fields of study, such as literary criticism. The main cause of this supposed fate is not a failure of science, but rather a surfeit of success. Much, it is admitted, still remains to be discovered, but the "big picture" of a lawful universe may already be more or less complete, and science may already have entered a period of sharply diminishing returns.
This is a provocative theme, although hardly original, and the author does an honest job of exploring the history of his idea as well as providing up-to-date reasons for believing it. But the great strength of The End of Science is that the truth or falsity of its central assertion is of less importance to the overall success of the book than the manner in which it is treated. In a style Horgan has already mastered as a staff writer preparing profile articles for the monthly magazine Scientific American, he employs his millenarian theme to draw together material gathered in interviews with 40 or so of the world's best known scientists. The result is something like a cross between a popular who's who of modern scientists and an annotated report on their views about the future of the scientific enterprise.
Either aspect of the book - the collection of short, well-crafted, scientific sketches, or the discussion of the fate of science, could exist without the other, but by fusing them together Horgan has produced a vastly more marketable commodity. lt is, of course, the repeated use of a standard magazine format - the combined biography and personality interview - to fill the major part of a book, that is responsible for the dense richness of the text, and the consequent danger that it might become just too much of a good thing.
The End of Science offers a range of delights. But many may find that long after differing views on the state of science have blurred into one, it is the images of individual scientists that endure - the 79-year-old John Archibald Wheeler (the late Richard Feynman's doctoral supervisor) charging down the stairs at Princeton University and swinging around the banisters having told his interviewer that "elevators are hazardous to your health". Or it may be the interaction between the distinguished (and sadly deceased) philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper, and his housekeeper, the formidable Mrs Mew, as they debate the location of a missing copy of one of Sir Karl's collections of essays.
The spirit of such characters, and their younger replacements, should, I believe, ensure the continued health of science. But the end may well be in sight for books called "The End of . . .", no matter how good they are.
Robert Lambourne is deputy head of physics at the Open University