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No. 1202:
After Science

Today, thoughts about the end of science. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Stories are told about 19th-century legislation meant to close the Patent Office because everything had been invented. There was talk of that kind, but no serious legislation. Now people have been talking about the end of science. What such talk really reflects is a change in the character of invention or science.

Think about the nature of matter: 2400 years ago, Greek philosophers argued that question. Is matter made of four continuous essences, earth, air, fire, and water? Or is it made of essential particles that might be called atoms? Science today is rooted in the idea that matter is made of atoms. Yet, as we break atoms into components on the scale of quantum indeterminacy, we seem to be facing Aristotelian essences once more. The nature of matter is as troubling today as it was to the early Greeks.

The difference is we've seen much more of the process by which the sciences cajole nature into releasing her secrets than Aristotle ever did. As a result, we also face much longer laundry lists of unanswered questions than he did.

We accept a 15 or so billion-year-old universe that began with a big bang, but who can say whether time flowed before that moment? We know species evolve but our knowledge of evolution is laced with deeper questions. We have many physical laws, but we realize those laws are not absolute truth. They are human constructs meant to make nature predictable. Meanwhile, mathematics has shown us that the only futures we'll ever predict will be trends, not events. Our increasing knowledge seems only to be widening our ignorance.

On the other hand, science now suggests vast arenas of invention. Science and math have given their users so great a capacity for altering human life that change is muted only by our ability to absorb it. What must occur next is not the completion of physics, astronomy, and biology. The method those fields use is already complete. Method defines science, and today's scientific method now widens questions faster than it answers them.

But the technology science now makes feasible demands wholly new sciences. We need a science of the behavior of large interacting systems. We need a science of biological ethics -- where right versus wrong can be optimized in the incredibly complex matrix of manipulated life. We need a psychology of humanity in transition.

Five hundred years ago the new medium of print gave us widespread visual information and it gave birth to a whole new set of sciences: anatomy, geography, botany. Now a flood of machine-manipulated information calls for new information-dense sciences. So science will take up new methods and move to a new arena. It will die only in the sense that alchemy died centuries ago. It will merely put on an unrecognizably new set of clothes.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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