A New Kind of Science

by Seun Peters | 11/3/97 6:00am

Some weeks ago, while browsing the stack of the bookstore for textbooks, I ran across a rather interesting book for a pretty interesting class. The book was John Horgan's The End of Science, and the class "The Rise and Fall of The Scientific Empire." I'll spare you a review of the book, but basically Horgan argues that real science -- the great paradigm shifts and flashes of insight -- is over. From here on, he says, science is just going to be a profession of worker bees tying up loose ends and polishing up the existing theories.

You may not have read The End Of Science, but if you've seen Contact you'd probably recognize the same de-mystifying forces at work. The makers of Contact duly informed us that, if there were any green men out there beyond the clouds, it would take as much astrology as astronomy to reach them. Contact aficionados (and I've heard quite a few) hold that "the truth," whatever it is, can be found in a cozy mishmash of Eastern mysticism and logical thought, with a dash of skepticism thrown in for good measure.

These views are easily debunked -- after all, where's the proof? Horgan, for one, misses the fact that tying knots can lead to undiscovered vistas. Hence quantum theory and later, chaos theory. Nor do paradigms pop up just for the asking -- they come to the front not only because they champion new perspectives, but also because they patch holes in old theories. Contact's central theme "science is myth is science" shows its obvious weakness when we remember that the two things are explanations of the universe on two vastly different scales. Have you ever read any Greek mythology describing Jupiter as a ball of hot gas?

And yet, flawed though they are, these two views highlight a flaw in late 20th century science. Most people have the illusion that science is a monolith; that biology is just soft chemistry and chemistry is just soft physics. But it isn't, and they aren't. The fact that people are turning to more simplistic views to supplement current science indicates that there is a need for a new kind of science, a science that bridges the gaps and explores the connections.

Physicists have long sought a Theory of Everything. The jury's still out on whether that can be done, and will probably remain out as long as science is a major force in our world. But it's time to start looking for one. Not to explain everything in terms of physics, but to try to explain what we now know so that physics becomes just one part of a continuum stretching from atoms to cells and back again. It is not enough to have one part of reality accessible via physics and another via biology -- this is a fractured explanation, no more indicative of the real thing that mosaic pieces are to the mosaic.

Yes, this is a tall order, and not one that can be completed in 10 years -- or even a hundred. But we must start taking the walls down, or the bridges will never be built. The average person holds science together with mysticism for lack of a better glue. It is up to the scientists, and all those interested and affected by science, to seek deeper and longer lasting explanations than we now have.