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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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  • No (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Colonel Korn (1258968) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @09:38PM (#42804141)

    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.

  • I don't see why not. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by TsuruchiBrian (2731979) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @09:57PM (#42804249)

    Einstein was famous because his discovered relativity. If he didn't discover it, someone else would have, and they would have been approximately as famous as Einstein.

    There are lots of really famous scientists like bohr, heisenberg, feynman, etc. They did amazing groundbreaking work. And that wasn't even too long ago. Some science involves spending billions of dollars on particle accelerators to verify existing hypotheses, but it still takes visionaries (like Peter Higgs) to come up with the ideas worth building an LHC to verify.

    To say that no one will ever be as famous as einstein, is to say that there isn't anything else out there that we could learn that would be as mind blowing as relativity. Maybe that's true, but I don't see any reason to believe it is true.

    After Newton came up with his laws, I'm sure the scientists of the time felt they'd pretty much figured it out. Sure there was some details that needed filling in, but Newton had hit the nail on the head and it was just a matter of time before everything else fell into place with this new knowledge. Why would anything contradict these laws? They are so perfect!

    Well it turns out they weren't so perfect afterall, and observations did contradict Newtons laws that they had to be wrong in some fundamental way. Nothing but a revolutionary theory was going to make sense of it.

    We are already in a time when stuff doesn't make sense. Phase 1 complete. All we need is for someone to complete phase 2 and come up with a clean equation (or a crazy dirty one) that explains it all, and phase 3 build a really fucking expensive death ray type device to open a portal into another dimension to verify that it's right. What an exciting time we live in.

    When you read about scientific history, it seems like discoveries come so fast because we get to skip all the boring parts. In the present it seems to go so slow because we can't fast forward. But in reality things are going so much faster now. Maybe the next great scientists will be an artificial intelligence that we create.

  • by goombah99 (560566) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @10:13PM (#42804365)

    The people you are thinking of are Lord Kelvin and Michelson. Michelson quoted lord Kelvin as saying all future science is in the 5th decimal place. But, as Michelson went on to explain, he didn't mean everthing left was about dotting i's and crossing t's. He meant it was unlikely that classica physics was profoundly wrong in the realms we observe and inhabit but there could be great physics out there. It just had to be lurking in the shadows-- out in the 5th decimal place. And sure enough it was. ANd still is. Just the other day someone measured the radius of a proton using muons instead of the usual electrons and it was wrong by 4%. That's absurdly huge. COuld be some new physcis is about to move into the light.

  • by icebike (68054) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @11:01PM (#42804703)

    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.

    Agreed, the is what he is talking about, but was it not always thus?

    When Mendel was laying the foundations of Genetics, the idea of DNA was unknown.
    He was working at the edge of knowledge, with no possible way forward.
    He described WHAT happened but could not even approach the HOW.

    Now, DNA pretty much defines Genetics as a science. We understand the HOW somewhat better.
    At least we know where to look.

    There must be more questions that we aren't even beginning to answer. WHY, for one (Why dna, Why here)
    WHERE for another. Did DNA originate here? If we find life on mars, will it have DNA?
    Or will it be totally different [gizmodo.com]?

    "To the best of our knowledge, the original chemicals chosen by known life do not constitute a unique set; other choices could have been made, and maybe were made if life started elsewhere many times."

    Paul Davies [dailygalaxy.com].

    Lots left to do.
    Science doesn't know everything. Science Knows it doesn't know everything. Otherwise, they'd Stop!. [youtube.com]

  • by TapeCutter (624760) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @11:49PM (#42805015) Journal

    we will have a coherent explanation for all observable physical phenomena

    Contrary to popular belief we have no explaination for gravity, spacetime, or the other fundamental forces (eg: try and define "time" without the definition becoming circular). What we have are models that predict how these "miracles" behave and interact in most situations.

  • by TapeCutter (624760) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @11:56PM (#42805059) Journal
    It always amuses me that Mendel's pea plant experiments would not get past peer review these days.
  • by quax (19371) on Wednesday February 06, 2013 @01:06AM (#42805401)

    Two days ago the entry on a physicist, who I thought came accross something pretty profound, was deemed not noteworthy by Wikipedia. I was originally prompted to create a biographical stub on him because they have articles on two rugby players by the same name. But it seems Wikipedia has more in common with highschool than I realized: The jocks get more attention.

    Anyhow, this dude from down under found a pretty astounding approach to the correspondence principle [wikipedia.org] (i.e. how QM gives rise) to classical mechanics in a mathematical framework originally developed by Steven Weinberg. Something the latter astoundingly overlooked. The talkback page on this math can be found here [wikipedia.org]. The article itself meanwhile has been deleted. Please note: Not because the math is wrong, but because the citation record has been deemed to be too low by the editors.

    There's a blog post [wavewatching.net] with links to his recovered papers (most follow up papers on this were actually lost for a while a never published). So if you have a physics background you can form your own opinion.

    To me this is a pretty good example of how really interesting findings can simply be washed away in the avalanche of mediocre papers that get produced every day.

  • Hardly... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by shaitand (626655) on Wednesday February 06, 2013 @01:49AM (#42805627) Journal
    It is hard to have your creativity crushed, correctly, for years and not let it stifle your drive to test the walls of the box. In today's world of mature sciences nobody could make a great leap without knowing a great deal that couldn't be leaped over and where their attempts to leap failed. The people who can do it will be rarer still than in the past and in a time and place to succeed in that leap even more rarely but it will still happen eventually.

    I actually think that aside from the base knowledge needed complexity and everyone having thought of everything has nothing to do with it. Great leaps are always simple seeming after discovered and even simpler in the minds of the men who discover them.

    Einstein was such a man in a world that appeared to be filled with mature science to those of the day. It all began with a mind who could visualize things others found vastly complex as simple abstractions. Was he the first with the primitive ideas that were the core of his model? Maybe, maybe not. But he was the first who had enough grounding in physics and mathematics to turn those abstractions into the universal language and to get someone to listen to him long enough to see if he had.

    Today the model employed by science as a whole would not tolerate such abstractions from someone who wasn't like Einstein with the credentials and proofs to back them up. Someone with high school physics understanding and/or armchair physics learning could know enough to come up with valid models but unless they have a family member or childhood friend who does have the right background nothing could ever come of it.

    Those who have the advanced physics, mathematics, or other prerequisites make up a small minority of the population. Those who can see simplicity in complexity make up and even smaller portion of the population. Those who can do both and are either stupid or arrogant enough not to dismiss the possibilities that are so obvious to them as not having already been tried are very very rare indeed. But they will come. Probably several in a fairly short period of time.

    Mark my worlds most of the things we think are impossible today will be possible later. FTL travel? It won't be found by someone trying to travel FTL but by someone who doesn't see the universe in terms of space and travel at all. Twenty or even a hundred years later people will be amazed at how advanced they are, making progressive discoveries that stem from that man's simple perspective. Almost none of them will intuitive see things in that simple way though. They will be smarter men capable of harassing and riding all the complexity of utilizing the model without that simple understanding. Fundamental advancements require thinking in a fundamental way.

    How about Tesla? I dare say we have more data and analysis of electricity and magnetism than he did. Probably a much more detailed and complex understanding of even Tesla's own inventions. In fact we tend to think we know all about it. Yet, I have no doubt that were the man alive today he would be doing things that are fundamental progressions of his intuitive mental model on these topics but revealed fundamental and groundbreaking new ideas to everyone else. He could probably explain the entire topic fully in three sentences and nobody would get it. They would just think he was simplifying great complexity for minds simpler than his own.
  • by mysidia (191772) on Wednesday February 06, 2013 @02:42AM (#42805853)

    Contrary to popular belief we have no explaination for gravity, spacetime, or the other fundamental forces

    False. We have no falsifiable, measurable, or experimentally verifiable explanation for gravity, spacetime, or other fundamental forces.

    Explanations abound, but there is almost inherently no way that science can test any coherent explanation that came up.

    As far as good scientists are concerned... if you can't measure something, and you can't test it -- then it is irrelevent.

    It may be true or false -- you don't know -- it falls into the realm of 'belief' or 'religion' instead of science, if it is not testable.

A motion to adjourn is always in order.

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