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Is the Era of Groundbreaking Science Over? 470

Posted by Soulskill
from the just-until-zefram-cochrane dept.
An anonymous reader writes "In decades and centuries past, scientific genius was easy to quantify. Those scientists who were able to throw off the yoke of established knowledge and break new ground on their own are revered and respected. But as humanity, as a species, has gotten better at science, and the basics of most fields have been refined over and over, it's become much harder for any one scientist to make a mark on the field. There's still plenty we don't know, but so much of it is highly specialized that many breakthroughs are understood by only a handful. Even now, the latest generation is more likely to be familiar with the great popularizers of science, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and Carl Sagan, than of the researchers at the forefront of any particular field. "...most scientific fields aren't in the type of crisis that would enable paradigm shifts, according to Thomas Kuhn's classic view of scientific revolutions. Simonton argues that instead of finding big new ideas, scientists currently work on the details in increasingly specialized and precise ways." Will we ever again see a scientist get recognition like Einstein did?"
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Is the Era of Groundbreaking Science Over?

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  • stupid. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @09:29PM (#42804069)

    Is the Era of Groundbreaking Science Over?
    No.

  • by DavidClarkeHR (2769805) <david DOT clarke AT hrgeneralist DOT ca> on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @09:35PM (#42804115)
    Well, this article is right. And will remain right, until the next big breakthrough.

    At which point, it'll probably be irrelevant, so ...
  • PCR (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Wild_dog! (98536) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @09:36PM (#42804121)

    The guy who came up with PCR while driving on the road to Santa Cruz California would make the question in the Title completely silly and irrelevant.

    Is slashdot becoming like yahoo or something? Snazzy titles to suck people like me in, but once I consider what the title is saying, it is really just absurd.

  • by swampfriend (2629073) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @09:36PM (#42804123)
    There was just a question the other day asking if we were past the age of invention. I believe one of the tags on it was "retarded."
  • by trout007 (975317) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @09:38PM (#42804133)

    I'm pretty sure whoever figures that one out will be famous.

  • Hindsight (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Slippery_Hank (2035136) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @09:39PM (#42804153)
    The greatest scientists of our generation will not be truly known until many years from now, when we can look back on the contributions with a greater understanding of the truth.
  • by mbkennel (97636) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @09:39PM (#42804157)

    No it wasn't.

    No scientist knew if atoms were real or not, and they knew it, and they had no mechanistic explanation for the regularities in the recently understood periodic table, and they knew it. They had no mechanistic quantitative explanation for chemical reactions or reaction rates, and knew it.

    Right now, physicists know that they have no good, experimentally confirmed, ideas for explaining

    a) dark matter
    b) dark energy
    c) the variety of arbitrary parameters in the standard model

    They have an large selection of theoretical proposals for the above.

    Today they do have good knowledge about virtually all materials and energetic processes typically occurring and observable on Earth,
    That's a difference from the 19th century.

  • Re:No (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Colonel Korn (1258968) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @09:40PM (#42804161)

    Is groundbreaking science over? No, not remotely. Is the era where groundbreaking science is publicized and sort of vaguely understood by a lot of non-scientists over? Probably not, but that's at least closer to the truth.

    Sorry to self reply, but another thought: the only reason people ask this stupid question or make the implied statement is that there's just do damn much groundbreaking science done today. Yes, it's harder to stand out than it was a couple hundred years ago. No, it's not because progress is slower - it's just ubiquitous. Science is more amazing than ever and in a hundred years it will be more amazing yet.

    Shit, I think I'm arguing for the existence of something analogous to Kurzweil's moronic singularity.

  • by Taco Cowboy (5327) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @09:42PM (#42804167) Journal

    In the late 1990's someone proclaimed that there was nothing more to invent, and he was proven to be very very wrong ...

    Now someone is trying the same thing, again, while tweaking the wording a little bit, by adding "groundbreaking" in the proclamation

    It gonna be as wrong as that guy in the late 1990's.

    Science progresses on.

    Groundbreaking or not, that's not the issue.

    For new breakthrough in science always "stand" on the shoulders of all the previous scientific findings

    Furthermore, how do you define "groundbreaking" ?

    Does one actually have to "break some ground" to be groundbreaking ?

    How about some new ideas being applied to older subjects, which yield new findings ?

    Would that be counted as "groundbreaking" ??

  • by joe_frisch (1366229) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @09:42PM (#42804171)

    There IS ground breaking science. Dark matter, dark energy, experimental measurements of cosmological inflation: our picture of the large scale structure of the universe has changed dramatically. Higgs bosons, neutrino mass: our picture of the microscopic structure of the universe has changed. We've found hundreds of extra-solar planets. We've built giant particle accelerators and telescopes, huge computers and data networks, peta-watt and X-ray lasers. We've sequenced the DNA of many creatures, including some that are extinct - and which we may bring back.We have pictures from the surface of a moon of Saturn, and an car driving around Mars.

  • by Nefarious Wheel (628136) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @09:56PM (#42804247) Journal

    Indeed -- if you invent stepping discs, or the transfer booth, or even an economical and practical flying car, you *will* get recognition.

  • by Uberbah (647458) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @09:57PM (#42804255)

    500 years ago: scientific research is done by aristocrats as a self-funded hobby, or sometimes by priests [wikipedia.org] after the Catholic Church got over it's butthurt on heliocentrism. Printing is exorbitantly expensive and education for the general population. There might have been hundreds of Issac Newtons born in a generation, but they ended up working on farms or in the military, not going to an academy.

    Now: research is directly sponsored by governments. You don't have to be in the priesthood or be the child of rich parents to go to secondary school anymore - though the latter certainly helps with admissions and student loans. The Mars Rovers were huge government funded, collaborative projects, not a hobby by Bill Gates. And of course the Internet allows sharing of data at a speed and volume that Newton never could have imagined.

    You would hope the "anonymous reader" would have thought about this after a couple seconds, and is just posing the question for conversational purposes....

  • by Kell Bengal (711123) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @10:01PM (#42804281)
    I think the argument that the author is trying to make is that the scope of new work is more tightly focussed than before. There have been relatively few new 'fundamental' discoveries in physics, compared to refinements and increasing precision. While we are always inventing new ways to use physical laws, the laws themselves haven't changed substantially since quantum mechanics became well understood (proposed nearly 100 years ago).

    Once upon a time, people didn't understand how many physical systems worked; the motion of galaxies and the intricacies of light interferometry were classic examples - a single scientist could make a new discovery, Now, we have good reliable models for their behaviour. The sorts of physics experiments that discover novel phenomena about how the mechanisms of the universe functions require teams and teams of physicists.

    There are relatively few outright mysteries that remain - the Higgs Boson and the effects shaping the inflation of the universe (eg. dark mater) are classic examples of our time. I suspect that eventually, we will have a coherent explanation for all observable physical phenomena - it's not over yet by a long shot, but one day we'll figure it out.
  • by Kwyj1b0 (2757125) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @10:04PM (#42804307)

    Sure, Einstein was ground breaking, but apart from E=mc^2, how many people know what he did (or even what it means)? How many know of the photoelectric effect? Relativity and quantum mechanics gets thrown around a lot as buzzwords, but most people have no idea what they mean.

    So you might consider that Einstein has become a great popularizers of science - unintentionally, but most people know that he was in a physicist, and don't really have a clue what he did.

    You seem to want groundbreaking to mean both Famous and Important Contributions. But I'm not sure how long it took for Einstein to become a household name. And you also want it to be One man/woman. That might not be as realistic anymore. Because research in most areas requires lots of equipments and teams (except in a few areas - theoretical mathematics and physics come to mind). But just because it is a team, doesn't make it any less valuable.

    In fact, I prefer teams and organizations get recognition. Students and the younger crowd have something concrete to work towards. Not "I want to be the next XYZ", but instead "I want to work at XYZ". They might have a hero-worship of the organization, but will still work hard towards something measurable.

  • by Proudrooster (580120) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @10:12PM (#42804353) Homepage

    Answer any of the following and you too can win a Nobel prize...

    1. What is a magnetic field?
    2. What is a electric field?
    3. What is gravity?
    4. Do tachyons exist?
    5. Does the Higgs Boson exist?
    6. Does matter decay?
    7. Is a magnetic field really a field or is it just another property of space-time?
    8. In how any dimensions does the Universe or multiverse exist? (The basic question of string theory)
    9. Can magnetic and electric fields be quantized or are they continuous?
    10. Can time and space be quantized or is it continuous?
    11. Why can't we all just get along?
    12. Is the universe a giant predetermined simulation playing out or do we have free will.

    We are a species that just recently wandered in off the Sahara. We know a lot about a little. Our knowledge is like Swiss cheese, full of holes, gaps, and inconsistencies. There are things we observe but can't explain and things we can explain but can't observe. Go watch this video from Fenyman...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsgBtOVzHKI [youtube.com]

  • by icebike (68054) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @10:35PM (#42804531)

    The flying car should not be a problem. The only reason why we do not have it yet is not because of technical difficulties. We can hardly manage driving a car in two dimensions. Try to add an extra dimension for the movement of your flying car and see what happens. Think about the traffic control systems. Think what we have to have instead of traffic lights (That some people still do not pay any attention to). When you have worked out that, then come up with a flying car

    So it should not be a problem, but then you promptly list a small handful of reasons why it is a problem.

    Everything you've mentioned applies to the people driving it. I agree, the human element is the central weakness, and relying on humans to follow the rules is pointless, we can't even get you to turn on your spell checker.

    But Google can make a driver-less car that works in two dimensions on a surface street bristling with moving targets and zero inter-target communication, and lots of stationary objects to hit. Such computer control would be actually easier in the air, where everything would be computer controlled, no stationary barriers, and everything would communicate with everything else.

    So lets hand-waive away the control and navigation problems that are mostly human induced, and hand them off to the computer.

    That STILL leaves a huge mountain to climb with regard to equipment durability, and failure proofing. Cars today are amazingly durable and reliable.
    Still, would you want to be flying in one of them? Or have them flying over your house? If only one in 10,000 or 100,000 flights ended in the engine
    stopping the results would be disastrous. What does fly gets rigorous maintenance and inspections by highly trained people. Not shade tree mechanics
    and burger flippers apprenticing as mechanics.

  • Re:Of course not (Score:5, Insightful)

    by foniksonik (573572) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @10:35PM (#42804537) Homepage Journal

    Until half of interior designers are male, interior design remains sexist. Lets break some ground and get more gents in there.

    Because #Bluntness

    p.s. the reason there are more females in interior design is that more females enjoy that kind of work/challenge.

  • Re:Of course not (Score:2, Insightful)

    by np2392 (2800729) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @10:50PM (#42804633)
    "p.s. the reason there are more females in interior design is that more females enjoy that kind of work/challenge." I don't understand why more people don't accept this. Why is thinking that their is a fundamental difference between the sexes and that they are better suited for different hobbies/challenges/activities so wrong? Why do we push for equality for equality's sake? You are seeing this with video games recently and the complaints that the video game industry is sexist, there aren't enough women in the industry, games are not made equally for men and women, etc. Why is it not okay to just accept that video games are a hobby that have a special appeal for males? The same thing applies to science. No one is saying women can't be scientists, it's just that the male gender is more likely to be better suited for the role of a scientist. It doesn't mean women are stupider or worse than men, it just means they think differently. Why is difference such a bad thing?
  • by girlintraining (1395911) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @11:32PM (#42804895)

    Indeed -- if you invent stepping discs, or the transfer booth, or even an economical and practical flying car, you *will* get recognition.

    Yes, you'll be sued into poverty and then watch as some rich bastard takes your beautiful invention and ruins it. Nobody I know who has a creative / inventive nature is doing anything in this country because they know the only recognition they'll get will be from the large companies that own this country and control its laws. They will take everything and leave you with nothing.

    Anyone with a good idea is well advised to flee to somewhere the United States' and its notions about intellectual property aren't going to interfere. China is right now (literally) knocking down mountains and building cities at a breakneck pace. Their economy is driven because they copy, then improve, in an iterative process without regard for intellectual property considerations. As a result, many of the world's goods and services now flow out of China. Yes, we may have invented those things, but they took them and made them better. Why can't we do the same? Oh right... Corporations.

    There's plenty of talent right here to make that next big thing. And it's gone to ground because of the flying hunter-killers with lawyer bombs on patrol, looking for them. Legal theft. Small wonder innovation's ground to a halt in this country...

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @11:33PM (#42804899) Journal
    Not only every breakthrough that could be made has already been made, it gets worse for the liberal arts. All the Great American Novels that could be written has already been written. Same with great poems, great opera, great screen plays and great musicals. Nothing more to invent. That is all folks. The last guy to leave please turn off the switch.
  • by HockeyPuck (141947) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @11:54PM (#42805053)

    You realize that discoveries like his only come very rarely as he discussed new areas of science. How many other physicists out there were around Einstein's time?

    I'll mention an invention that is "ground breaking" and done in my lifetime.

    100Gb Ethernet.

    Growing up, I had access to a 300baud modem. That's 300 tones per second. So if one "tone" equated to a bit, then this modem could send 300 bits per second.

    100Gb is 107,374,182,400 bits.

    or the equivalent of 357,913,942 300baud modems or more modems than the population of the United States (~313m).

    Someone had to discover the technologies and methods required to be able to transmit multiple signals at 12.5Gb/sec, and how to transmit multiple wavelengths down the same copper cable or optical fibre without interference...

    Hard drive technology? When I graduated from college, the disk arrays I worked on had 9, 18 and 36GB drives in them. So a TB was a lot of storage. Now with advances in hard drive technology like GMR [wikipedia.org] we have multi Terabyte hard drives in our laptops.

    Go back and read the newspapers on microfiche of when Einstein made his discoveries. I doubt people were throwing parades in his honor.

    Broaden your scope into what areas you're looking at for "discoveries".
    Other well known "inventors":

    Werner VonBraun / Robert Goddard
    Jonas Salk - discovered the cure for Polio
    Stephen Hawking...
    Edward Jenner -- Discovered vaccinations...

  • by TapeCutter (624760) on Wednesday February 06, 2013 @12:22AM (#42805213) Journal

    He meant it was unlikely that classical physics was profoundly wrong in the realms we observe and inhabit but there could be great physics out there.

    "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together." - Asimov, The relativity of wrong [tufts.edu].

  • by nick_davison (217681) on Wednesday February 06, 2013 @12:47AM (#42805305)

    There's still plenty we don't know, but so much of it is highly specialized that many breakthroughs are understood by only a handful.

    Spare a thought for poor Charles Darwin. He published Origin Of The Species in 1859 and, over a century and a half later, only 39% of Americans fully believe it [digitaljournal.com].

    At least Samuel Pierpoint Langley, Svante Arrhenius and Arvid Högbom have managed to convince 63% [mnn.com] that global climate change is real and they've only been going since the 1890s.

    Still, could be worse: Galileo was imprisoned for the remainder of his life and his writing banned in 1618. The establishment (Catholic Church) didn't lift that interdiction on heliocentrism until 1822. Darwin's got another half century before he reaches Galileo's 204 years.

  • by ceoyoyo (59147) on Wednesday February 06, 2013 @12:58AM (#42805349)

    There have been relatively few new 'fundamental' discoveries in physics, compared to refinements and increasing precision. While we are always inventing new ways to use physical laws, the laws themselves haven't changed substantially since quantum mechanics became well understood (proposed nearly 100 years ago).

    Let's see... the idea of a quantum field theory, 1920's to 1950's. Quantum electrodynamics, 1950s. Gauge theory, 1950s-70s. Quantum electrodynamics, 1950s. Quantum chromodynamics, 1960s-70s+. Grand synthesis/standard model, 1970s to today.

    Up until the 30s we didn't know about the neutron, which makes up about half of everything around you, including you. Until the mid to late 60s we didn't know about quarks or gluons, which actually make up almost all of everything around you. Even then we hadn't the faintest idea that we'd only discovered a third of the matter particles (well, a third of the ones we know about now. We're pretty sure there are more we haven't discovered yet).

    Physics right up until the present day has been a non-stop factory of fundamental discoveries compared to other eras in history. The period between Newton and Einstein wasn't exactly devoid of progress, but it was also three hundred years.

    I guess you're right though, the laws of physics haven't changed much since quantum mechanics became well understood, proposed nearly 100 years ago and last modified... well, we're still arguing about how exactly to modify them, but one of the last big revolutions requiring modification was the confirmation of neutrino mass, in 1998.

    Of course, we know it's still wrong. Dark matter (probably), dark energy and the incompatibility between the standard model and general relativity means we still don't know what's going on.

    The original poster's thesis is something silly that people, particularly non-scientists, have been saying for a long time, quite often right before some revolution shakes everything up. The particular example you chose to support his point is one a lot of people, including me, would choose to use to demolish it.

  • by careysub (976506) on Wednesday February 06, 2013 @01:15AM (#42805445)

    >

    Anyway, "weirdness" you are talking about is about Quantum Mechanics. Einstein didn't like Quantum Mechanics. Today we know we was wrong by saying "god doesn't play dice".

    Time slowing the faster you go is weird. Matter and energy being the same is weird. Gravity warping space and slowing time is weird. Plenty of weird stuff came from Einstein.

  • by mysidia (191772) on Wednesday February 06, 2013 @02:29AM (#42805799)

    It always amuses me that Mendel's pea plant experiments would not get past peer review these days.

    Scientists' methods evolve with the peer review process. If it wouldn't get past peer review back then, he would likely have done something differently, so that it would meet the peer review standards of his day... assuming he intended to be published :)

  • Re:Of course not (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 06, 2013 @02:57AM (#42805893)

    Not if they're naked.

  • by jacksonyee (590218) on Wednesday February 06, 2013 @03:03AM (#42805901) Homepage

    I've been living in China teaching English for two years now, and I can tell you that the locals themselves are quite wary of bad copies coming out of their own factories. The Chinese are indeed good at copying things, but not all of the copies necessarily work so well, and the few that do are still far behind most of the originals in one area or another.

    Now, if you want to talk about the Japanese or the Germans for taking our original inventions and making them better, then I'm with you all the way. The Chinese? They still have a while to go before overcoming their issues, especially when the cheapskate culture is so widespread around here.

  • by TapeCutter (624760) on Wednesday February 06, 2013 @03:45AM (#42806063) Journal
    I see your Brian Cox and raise you a Richard Feynman [youtube.com]. Key quote "I can't explain magnetism,..[snip]...that's just one of the things that you have to take as an element of the world, the existence of magnetic repulsion".

    Now an explanation for magnetism may be discovered one day, but that will just push the problem down to another more fundamental property of the universe that "just is" (in Feynman's words finding an explanation for magnetism will just "peel another layer off the onion"). I agree science models reality better than any other method yet devised and gives us a deep understanding of the universe, but it cannot (currently) explain where the fundamental forces and spacetime come from, it just takes it as a given that they exist and can be observed.
  • Re:Of course not (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Sique (173459) on Wednesday February 06, 2013 @04:35AM (#42806231) Homepage
    The problem with this is that it is completely wrong.
    It's solely determined by culture which roles are considered suitable for men and women. I could watch the effect in real life, when former Eastern Europe went from communism to capitalism. The comp science at my local university was quite equally distributed male and female until 1990. And then came the end of the soviet dominated block, and inscriptions of female students plummeted. There were the same females than before, they even went through the same schools than before, just the last few years, when the career gets determined, were different. Suddenly business schools had a majority of female students, and comp science went to a 50:1 ratio of males and females.
    If all it takes to change the ratio of males and females interested in a subject is a change of the environment, then it's completely unacceptable to describe differences in the preferences without referring to the environment which determines the differences.
  • by khallow (566160) on Wednesday February 06, 2013 @04:53AM (#42806277)

    Anyone with a good idea is well advised to flee to somewhere the United States' and its notions about intellectual property aren't going to interfere. China is right now (literally) knocking down mountains and building cities at a breakneck pace. Their economy is driven because they copy, then improve, in an iterative process without regard for intellectual property considerations. As a result, many of the world's goods and services now flow out of China. Yes, we may have invented those things, but they took them and made them better. Why can't we do the same? Oh right... Corporations.

    Let me get this right. Someone is going to "flee" the US which at least has significant protection for inventions and go to China which institutionalizes the theft of IP.

  • Hindsight (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Roger W Moore (538166) on Wednesday February 06, 2013 @05:08AM (#42806329) Journal

    Which is stupid, and is just a blatant illustration of the author's lack of vision and understanding of the world and of history.

    Actually I would say it is pretty much to be expected. We don't really know what the major, ground breaking discoveries are today which will have a major impact on peoples lives 50 years from now. So I think it would be quite normal for a non-scientist to look around and not understand or see how todays discoveries might affect them in several decades time. In fact I don't even think us scientists can do that either - at least with any degree of accuracy.

    The result is that when you look back with hindsight you see the "big breakthroughs" for what they really are but this is only possible with hind sight. Who knew that the transistor would revolutionize almost every aspect of day to day life when it was invented?

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