By Edvard A. Hemmingsen
What Remains to be Discovered. Mapping the Secrets of the Universes, the Origins of Life, and the Future of the Human Race. By John Maddox, 1998, The Free Press, New York, ISBN 0-684-82292-X
Imagined Worlds. By Freeman Dyson, 1997, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, ISBN 0-674-53908-7
About two years ago, a book, The End of Science, by John Horgan was published and received considerable attention (reviewed in Rational Inquiry, Vol. 2, Issue 2). It made the preposterous claim that science essentially had come to an end; only some details remained to be filled in.
Since then, two new books on this subject have appeared. Both are written in a relaxed prose that is a delight to read, and they both reach a very different conclusion, namely that what is left to be discovered is unimaginably vast, even if science just proceeds from what is known today without its usual twists and turns, and surprises. History has shown that it is the completely unexpected discoveries that often lead to big advances in science. Both books build on our present day knowledge and science-based theories, but take different paths to the authors' visions of where science is headed in the near and far future.
The Maddox book, What Remains to be Discovered, is the longer, more substantive, informative--and earthy--one. From his background, especially as editor for 23 years of the widely read science journal Nature, his views appear to be well founded and in tune with current mainstream scientific thinking. He evinces impressive knowledge and understanding of where science stands today and how it grew from the past. No subject seems foreign to him, and he writes comfortably about all areas of the hard sciences. He has a rare ability to explain in simple language complex ideas and concepts so that the reader comes away with a sense of their essence.
The title of the book may be a bit flippant and misleading, as most of the text ponders the wonders and uncertainties of the physical universe and its beginning, as well as nature in general and the life embedded in it, at least on this planet. There are few predictions about the more distant future. Rather, the book is about closing holes in our existing knowledge by attacking the more obvious problems.
Scientists and informed laymen may take issue with some of Maddox's opinions they are many and strong and his interpretations and inferences. This is unavoidable in a book whose author relies on popularization and simplification of complex issues to make his points.
If you have doubts about the vitality and importance of science in the future, take a look at the few simple blueprints for discoveries outlined by Maddox, in astrophysics, nuclear physics, genetics and molecular biology, neurobiology and other fields. Even though he may be off target with the priorities that science will embrace in the future (how can we possibly know?), you probably will find it astonishing that anyone would entertain the idea that science is coming to an end.
Dyson's book, Imagined Worlds, continues far beyond the point where Maddox' book stops. Where Maddox appears hesitant to speculate, Dyson--a theoretical physicist of some fame--plunges in with enthusiasm. In the first part of his book, Dyson treads on solid scientific ground and points out some of the areas where our knowledge is most deficient; it is on these areas that science will focus in the decades to come. Like Maddox, he points out that biology S specifically genetics and neuroscience S are two areas where our knowledge and understanding are still very limited. Both he and Maddox make a good case for this forecast.
Dyson moves from what we reasonably may predict from the status of science and technology today to speculations about the future, a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, even a million years from now. He touches on the continued evolution of humans, and beings arising from humans; interstellar space travel; and the spreading of life throughout all of our solar system, and even beyond, indeed even throughout the entire galaxy. He envisions space colonization occurring on planets and other bodies of our solar system, and ultimately on bodies of distant stellar systems.
Some of these issues are thought-provoking. They challenge the mind and the vague ideas which most of us wonder about at times. Where is humanity headed? What will happen to the human race, baring major worldwide catastrophes? Most of Dyson's predictions are futuristic and even fantastic; yet none of them seem impossible. Like most fantasy, little of it will come true. Some of it may, but specifically what? If I were a science fiction fan, which I am not, I might have enjoyed these sections of the book more.
In the last chapter, Dyson takes up new subjects: ethics in science and technology mixed in with social and political issues. He blames, for example, science and technology for widening the gap between the poor and the rich of the world. His opinions are based on several questionable postulates and are gross oversimplifications of very complex problems.
Neither Dyson nor Maddox venture to discuss the likelihood that our societies will make the necessary investments to bring out the new, and probably spectacular discoveries, not yet dreamed of. With the increasing complexity and expense of science, this may be the biggest problem in the future--the paucity of funds not the paucity of problems to pursue and solve. But that is a topic for another book.