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Have we reached the twilight of the fundamental science era?

There are some symptoms which indicate a decline of our scientific culture. Scientific organisations behave like a colony of bacteria which reproduce as far as the available food and money allow. The more you feed them, the more they grow: more PhD students, postdocs, staff researchers, papers, supercomputers, telescopes, particle accelerators etc. Experimental science becomes more and more expensive with time, and science has opted for this way of no return, going always for an increase in funds. When the investment in science reaches the limit where it can no longer grow, a crisis will become unavoidable. The end of science will mean the end of modern European culture, the twilight of the scientific age. Are we not wise enough to stop this decline? No, we are not. Humans are individually intelligent, but when they associate in big groups this intelligence is diluted. For instance, global warming cannot be halted, due to this collective stupidity. The golden age of science will never come again. But we could, at least, try to preserve something of the spirit of science, in which the best intelligences can produce smart solutions to various problems.

History reveals a succession of many dawns and twilights, in different facets of human activity. Looking at the past, we can date and understand the reasons for the birth of science, specifically fundamental science. However, we do not know precisely when its twilight will take place. Nevertheless, clues of the advent of such twilight are already in the air; after a very hot summer the season of falling leaves always comes. This article presents the underlying rationale suggesting that we are now past the golden age of pure science, and how we need to accommodate our research to this new era.

Symptoms of decline

Today, science and some of its priests enjoy a high status in our society. By science this article refers to pure sciences, as distinct from applied sciences. We have witnessed gargantuan amounts of money invested to support such sciences. The quantity of publications, the quantity of big instruments and the technology created, the number of jobs created in research, the accurate control of our science in comparison with past times, could all be considered as arguments used to show that science is presently living in a golden age.

But there are some symptoms which indicate a decline of our scientific culture. First, our society is drowned in huge amounts of knowledge. Most of it is about research of little importance to progress our world view or produces no advances in the basic fundamentals of pure science. Instead, we invent countless technical applications or investigate secondary details.

Second, in the few fields where some important aspects of unsolved questions have arisen, powerful groups of administrators of science control the flow of information. They have inherent biases resulting in a preference for consensus truths, rather than having objective discussions within a scientific methodology. This process gives few guarantees that we are obtaining solid new truths about nature.

Finally, should the current scientific process continue the way it is, individual creativity is condemned to disappear. Indeed, truly creative scientists are substituted by large corporations of administrators and politicians of science specialised in searching ways of getting money from States in megaprojects with increasing costs and diminishing returns.

A hive without a soul

In essence, our science has become an animal without a soul. Or rather a colony of animals, a group of organisms, which devour human efforts and do not offer anything but growth for the sake of growth. Scientific organisations behave like a colony of bacteria which reproduce as far as the available food and money allow. The more you feed them, the more they grow: more PhD students, postdocs, staff researchers, papers, supercomputers, telescopes, particle accelerators etc. And, if the money tap is closed, the number of people who dedicate their time to science and its by-products is reduced proportionally.

Almost everything in science is reduced to find a small fiefdom of nature to analyse—regardless of the existence any fundamental question to solve there. The whole process boils down to publishing papers on such fiefdoms, getting citations from colleagues with the aim of getting jobs and extra money for expenses, getting money to employ more PhD students, postdocs, etc. And when these students and postdocs grow up, they become new senior researchers who ask for more money, and so on… The sense of all this industry is one of primitive life: just a struggle for survival and spreading intellectual genes.

The business of science in crisis

It is not only a crisis of senses and spirit. But it will also be a crisis in the business of science, at least for pure sciences—not necessarily for technological applications. Scientific institutions follow the structure of capitalism, so they must continuously grow. Experimental science becomes more and more expensive with time, and science has opted for this way of no return, going always for an increase in funds. When the investment in science reaches the limit where it can no longer grow, a crisis will become unavoidable.

Nowadays, the richest countries aim to invest around 3% of GDP in research and development, from which 20% is dedicated to pure sciences. This ratio is much higher than in the past—both in absolute and relative terms—and it has grown continuously in the last few decades, with some small fluctuations. Such investment is, possibly, already close to the asymptotic limit in terms of the relative ratio of money that a society can afford. So an economic crisis in science may be not very far away. It could well be that many research centres will continue for some decades with a constant or decreasing budget. But eventually they will recognise that no advances can be made without increasing budgets. Then, these centres will begin to close, one after another.

This will not happen very fast. But it will be a process possibly lasting several generations. And this decline will not only affect science but the sinking of science will run parallel to the sinking of many other aspects of our civilisation. The end of science will mean the end of modern European culture, the twilight of an era initiated in Europe around the fifteenth century and which is extended nowadays throughout the world: the scientific age.

The end of the golden age of science

Are we not wise enough to stop this decline? No, we are not. We have plenty of cumulative knowledge. But memory is neither intelligence nor wisdom. Humans are individually intelligent, but when they associate in big groups this intelligence is diluted. For instance, global warming cannot be halted, due to this collective stupidity. In my opinion, the fate of our civilisation cannot be changed. “It is not the individual but the spirit of a culture who gets fed up,” said early XX century philosopher of history Oswald Spengler in his book ‘The Decline of the West.’ Whatever has to happen, will happen. Societies develop their cultures, and they grow, reproduce and die.

The golden age of science will never come again. But we could, at least, try to preserve something of the spirit of science, in which the best intelligences can produce smart solutions to various problems.

Thinking about new ideas with low-budget experiments or intellectual developments produced by few individuals has more merit than the mega-expensive macro-projects of big science. Many scientists might, possibly, complain about this statement and say: “With a low budget, we cannot create innovative science.” And the answer should be equally firm: “If you cannot produce new ideas or new analyses of available data in science, and your only idea of advance is to ask for more money for a device more expensive than the previous one, then the only option left is to leave research.”

“Reprinted article from Euroscientist.com, special issue on “Ethics, values and culture driving research”.
The ideas presented here are developed further in an article (http://arxiv.org/abs/1305.4144) and in a book called ‘The Twilight of the scientific age’.”

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3 Comments

  1. È una visione catastrofista che non mi sento di condividere. Certamente non desidero opporre delle forme di ottimismo positivo e incondizionato nella scienza che per se non è altro che un modo di produrre e organizzare le nostre conoscenze molto localizzato nello spazio e nel tempo. Il metro stesso di giudizio che porta a usare il termine crepuscolo mi sembra molto soggettivo e non potrebbe essere altrimenti. Mi pare invece che, come spesso accaduto nella storia, siano i processi di trasformazione in atto nella società (forse sarebbe meglio il plurale) a determinare il cammino della scienza. E’ vero che un certo ipertrofismo di alcune scienze sperimentali è arrivato al capolinea, ma gli scienziati più avveduto lo sanno da tempo. Per esempio la fisica delle particelle oggi guarda con molta più attenzione allo spazio che non a un nuovo CERN (che tutti sanno essere finanziariamente e praticamente inavvicinabile). Abbiamo poi una rivoluzione della scienza dei dati che spinge verso la creazioni di culture interdiscipliari, superando a mio avviso barriere tradizionali (oggi direi anacronistiche) anche tra scienze umane, scienze della vita, scienze fisico matematiche e ingegneria. Quello che invece va combattuto è la creazione di nicchie di potere come pullula nella burocrazia della ricerca italiana, evitando eccessi di concentrazione nei finanziamenti. Nella ricerca è necessario non essere mai troppo dirigisti, non è possibile decidere oggi con sicurezza quali linee avranno successo domani. Invece è molto importante garantire un minimo di qualità diffusa perchè questo è già un valore aggiunto per se e aumenta la probabilità che emergano idee forti, non programmabili a tavolino. Se guardiamo il dibattito scientfico di 100 anni fa, troviamo che tutto ciò che venuto dopo era già prevedibile allora? Vogliamo dire che la storia del XX secolo non abbia influenzato la scienza del XX secolo?

  2. Francesco Vissani, PhD says:

    Dear Martin, I have been following your writings and fights in these years, and I thank you for them, I think they are important and precious. Still I am not convinced the social and economical dynamics deserve so much emphasis in a discussion concerning science, and I am glad by the occasion offered by this blog to collect a few personal opinions and comments apropos

    1) I doubt of the effectiveness of too general statements. E.g., the title of your piece maks reference to “fundamental science”: but, what’s that? If you mean “speculative cosmology” (that I guess is the field that you know better) or “speculative particle physics” (that is the one I know instead) I could largely agree on the statement that “we reached the twilight of the fundamental science era”. But even if these research fieds are popular, and their claims are well-represented on the media, I am not at all that these two branches satisfy automatically the criteria that should be fulfilled to deserve the name of “sciences”! Thus in my view the problem is simpler: we should fight them face to face, point out the loose ends, focus the discussion on valid points, do our job and help people who want to do the same. Incidentally am quite in agreement with Feynman’s polemical positions on string “theory” (as expressed in many writings) on that, and also with the one of White on the negative effect of “fundamentalism” (as described in arXiv:0704.2291).

    2) In any case, I would not be so strict in separating what is fundamental and what is not. If one stops to wonder on the importance for the science of Archimedes screw, of Galileo’s usage of the telescope, of Newton’s prism, of Marconi’s antennae (built only 100 yr ago!!!), Rontgen’s X-rays or even the blue LED of Akasaki, Amano, Nakamura, etc etc, it is easier to realise how dubious is the value of the artificial barriers among what is fundamental and what it is not. For the immediate future, it is enough to just think to the impact that “artificial” intelligence could have on the evolution of the concept of science. Even closer: everybody can see that the current technologies have an enormous importance for the future of mankind and societies and require new ways of thinking–who cares if these ways of thinking are fundamental or not!

    3) I am strongly convinced that science is not an abstract matter but a human activity made first of all by certain pioneers, and then practiced enjoyed used by many other people. I would put less emphasis on the abstract matter – The Science — and more on the concrete character of results, theories and ideas. Also for this reason, I think we need to invest many more energies in making science readable and accessible to new scientists and to people; to work a lot on teaching; to give respect to whom deserves it; to open the windows of the buildings in which, we scientists, happen to live.

    I would like to conclude with a thought of my beloved G. Orwell, “Orthodoxy means not thinking–not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” which has an evident reference to the issue of discussion.

    With my best wishes for the new year to you, the editors of Roars and all us

  3. Francesco Vissani, PhD says:

    Dear Martin, I have followed your writings and struggles in these years, and I thank you for them, because I think they are important and precious. However I am not convinced that social and economic dynamics deserve such an emphasis in a discussion on science, and I am happy with the opportunity offered by this blog to gather some personal opinions and comments about it.

    1) I doubt the effectiveness of too general statements. For example, the title of your piece refers to “fundamental science”: but what is it? If you mean the “speculative cosmology” (which I suppose is the field you know best) or the “physics of speculative particles” (which is what I know instead) I could broadly agree on the statement that “we have arrived at the twilight of fundamental science era”. But even if these researches are popular and their statements are well represented in the media, I’m not at all sure that they *automatically* meet the criteria that should be met to be called “science”! From my point of view, therefore, the problem is simpler: we should watch them in face, fight any single fight, point out weaknesses, concentrate the discussion on valid points, do our work in short, help people who want to do the same. Incidentally I quite agree with R. Feynman’s polemical positions apropos and in particular those on string “theory” (as expressed in many writings), and also with that of S. White on the negative effect of “fundamentalism” (as described in arXiv: 0704.2291) .

    2) I would not be so strict in tracing a separation from what is “fundamental” and what is not. It is easy to realize how artificial are certain barriers, as soon as we stop to wonder how important for mankind are the screw of Archimedes, the use of Galileo of the telescope, the prism of Newton, the antennas of Marconi (built only 100 years ago !!!), Rontgen’s X-ray or even Hurst’s touchscreen, to name a few. For the immediate future, it is sufficient to think about the impact that “artificial” intelligence could have on the evolution of the very concept of science. Even closer to us: everyone can see that current technologies have enormous importance for the future of man and society and require new ways of thinking – who cares if these ways of thinking are fundamental or not!

    3) I am strongly convinced that science is not an abstract question but a human activity made first of all by some pioneers, and then practiced enjoyed used by many other people. I would place less emphasis on the abstract question – Science – and more on the concrete character of results, theories and ideas. For this reason too, I think we need to invest a lot more energy to make science readable and accessible to new scientists and people; work hard on teaching; give respect to those who deserve it; to open the windows of the buildings in which, we scientists, happen to work and live.

    I would like to conclude with a sentence from my beloved G. Orwell, “Orthodoxy means not thinking, not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness”, which has a clear relationship with the topic of discussion.

    With my best wishes to you, to P. Marcati (who has made many good points just above) to the publishers of Roars, to all those who care of science: Happy New Year!

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