The next fifty years: it is all in the mind
Wednesday, November 22, 2006 8:12:55 PM
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.