Physics and Society Jul '97--REVIEW

Volume 26, Number 3 July 1997


The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age, by John Horgan. Addison-Wesley, 308 pages, $24

John Horgan explains that scientists now understand everything important that can be explored scientifically. Horgan, an editor of Scientific American, writes that "There will be no great revelations in the future comparable to those bestowed upon us by Darwin or Einstein or Watson and Crick....After the fundamental laws are discovered, physics will succumb to second-rate thinkers, that is, philosophers....The vast majority of physicists...will continue to apply the knowledge they already have in hand--inventing more versatile lasers and superconductors and computing devices--without worrying about any underlying philosophical issues. A few diehards dedicated to truth rather than practicality will practice physics in a nonempirical, ironic mode, plumbing the magic realm of superstrings and other esoterica and fretting about the meaning of quantum mechanics....Ironic science is science that is not experimentally testable or resolvable even in principle and therefore is not science in the strict sense at all. Its primary function is to keep us awestruck before the mystery of the cosmos."

Will there then be no place for us second-raters but details?

Horgan's views are not shared by all the physicists he interviewed. Steven Weinberg writes in his superb book Dreams Of A Final Theory that "the discovery of a final theory would not end the enterprise of science....No one knows how galaxies formed or how the genetic mechanism got started or how memory is stored in the brain. None of these problems is likely to be affected by the discovery of a final theory."

No one has described the qualitatively new complexity of large systems as clearly as Philip Anderson, who explained to Horgan, to no avail, that reality is a hierarchical structure: "At each stage, entirely new laws, concepts, generalizations are necessary, requiring inspiration and creativity to just as great a degree as in the previous one."

How do you know when you know everything important? You can survey, inch by inch, the finite surface of the earth and state confidently that there are no more undiscovered islands. How do you survey all knowledge? Horgan's solution to the epistemological problem is to ask great physicists what are the big questions. Not surprisingly, they could only think of things they could think of. As the British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane remarked, "The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer that we can suppose."

And right here on Earth, it is widely considered that new physical formulations, emerging from the fundamental laws but only indistinctly and distantly encompassed by them, will be needed to describe complex biological systems--sight and pattern recognition, hearing, memory, consciousness, the brain in all its actions. Are these not immense questions? Yet biology is deemed by Horgan to require no further break-through insights. According to Horgan, biology is just chemistry, and everything about chemistry is understood "in principle." To say that "It's all in the Schroedinger equation" glosses over the problem that to solve the Schroedinger equation one must first know the solution.

The story is told that Heisenberg in his later years believed that he had invented a comprehensive theory, though there were many things he did not know how to calculate. Pauli sent Heisenberg a drawing, an empty square. Pauli wrote that he had drawn a great picture, as good as any Rembrandt. He simply hadn't filled in the details. Let those who argue that biology is all in the Schroedinger equation teach the rest of us their quantum theory of biological memory.

I hope and trust that Horgan sells us short. It may be too soon to crow about such things as superstrings, but it is also too soon to sneer. It seems to me that the rest of us should be cautious in derogating an effort that very bright people are very excited about. Superstring theory has made and continues to make stunning advances. Suppose those bright theoreticians develop a theory that is so beautiful and robust as to give us a feeling of inevitability. Does it not seem likely that such a radical theory would have some implications--leave some fingerprints, for example proton decay or particle supersymmetry--on the observable world?

Scientists are optimists. We have more than 300 years of success on our side. For 2500 years philosophers have been hypnotized by the shadows on the wall of the cave, debating whether the world exists, while scientists simply ignored Platonic idealism. The proof of the pudding is not merely in the transistors; it is quantum mechanics, relativity, evolution, DNA, and whatever comes next--real philosophy. Darwin wrote, "He who understands the baboon would do more toward metaphysics than Locke."

And now my final dissatisfaction. Throughout the book Horgan refers to The Answer in italics. At first I assumed this was shorthand for supergrand unification. But it is not. Perhaps because of the arrogance of such phrases as "final theory" and "theory of everything," Horgan has been looking in physics for God. And now Horgan is bitter and disappointed. But he should have learned long ago that The Answer is not to be found in physics, biology, neuroscience--fields in which he has looked in vain. In the epilogue, entitled "The Terror of God," Horgan discusses mystical experience as perhaps the only way we can attain absolute truth. Horgan then relates his own mystical experience: "I was hurtling through a dazzling, dark limbo toward what I was sure was the ultimate secret of life...I knew that I was the only conscious being in the universe....If I alone existed, who could bring me back from oblivion?...For months after I awoke from this nightmare, I was convinced that I had discovered the secret of existence: God's fear of his own Godhood, and of his own potential death, underlies everything. At the heart of reality lies not an answer, but a question: Why is there something rather than nothing? The Answer is that there is no answer, only a question."

And then, to conclude the book: "My practical, rational mind tells me this terror-of-God stuff is delusional nonsense. But I have other minds. One glances at an astrology column now and then, or wonders if maybe there really is something to all those reports about people having sex with aliens....Our plight is God's plight. And now that science--true, pure, empirical science--has ended, what else is there to believe in?"

That is what the book is about.

Earl Callen
Professor of Physics (retired)
American University
Washington DC 20016

Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences by Edward Tenner 346 pages, $26.00, ISBN 0-679-42563-2

From the moment when prehistoric people shaped stone tools to the present-day creation of nuclear arms, benefits and disadvantages have walked side-by-side along the path of technological advancement. Events of historical magnitude have resulted from unanticipated flaws in an invention's design or failure to predict an invention's impact on society. Edward Tenner's book chronicles the historically unexpected consequences parented by innovation.

At the outset, Tenner engages the reader in a discourse on technology by anthropomorphizing inventions. A flurry of angry toasters, autonomous automobiles and chime-terrorizing clocks hearken back to the days of "Twilight Zone" and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.. For Tenner, technology is a monster of society's own creation. Although the best intentions exist in its creation, the final semblance of nuts and bolts when released into the countryside produces sheer mayhem.

The book argues that Frankensteins have proliferated in almost every aspect of existence. From medicine, pest control, and even sports, their vengeful motions are manifested as innovation which complicates our lives, congests our airwaves and highways, dulls our senses with repetitious tasks, and makes our environments intolerable. This is addressed rather systematically through both research studies and expert opinions, with a careful analysis of the dynamics of innovations and the social structure.

Tenner is careful to note the Dr. Frankensteins of technology, the innovators, cannot be held responsible for these problems. The blame for such problems is difficult, if not impossible to place. At times, the users are to blame. Overconfidence in an invention rises from an overflowing well of trust in technology. A prime example is the technological majesty of the Titanic which endowed its operators with the bravado to sail fearlessly through iceberg-infested waters. Upon colliding with an iceberg, the crew delayed activating safety mechanisms because of their iron-clad trust in the Titanic's hull, leading over 1500 people to an icy death.

Hoards of technological tragedies do not block the light of optimism. Not all inventions can achieve a rigorous level of testing in a laboratory setting. When an invention does fail, we must take all possible measures to limit problems and to prevent future disasters. Tenner's immense research database finds that even the failings of technology can yield beneficial results. For example, the "unsinkable" Titanic resulted in increased security on ships as well as the invention of iceberg detection mechanisms which continue to be of use today.

Although the depth of Tenner's research is almost overwhelming, there are places where Tenner's speculations seem invalid. A glaring example is his discussion of the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) found in power lines and household electrical devices, and the cancer debate between physicists, physicians and the general public. This debate has gone on for over two decades, with little or no conclusive evidence in support of a correlation between EMFs and cancer. Although correlations existed in a few of the studies, they were either weak or based on poor experimental technique. Most recently, the correlations between EMFs and cancer have been dissolved by the National Research Council (Physics Today, January 1997).

In addition, Tenner occasionally falls prey to one of the most obvious fallacies: argumentum ad hominem, the fallacy of proof by belief in an authority figure. Tenner cannot be expected to substantiate all of his arguments in excrutiating detail, but some further information is essential in thinking critically about these issues. Technology and its impact on society is a delicate field, requiring as much information about the type and quality of research as about the results of the research. Tenner's frequent reliance on the names of authority figures rather than the arguments themselves is ineffective in strengthening his thesis.

Luddites and Technophobes beware! Although Tenner's book does talk of the historical failings of technology, it emphasizes the dynamical interactions between technology and society. Inventions alone do fail, independent of their surroundings. What is critical, however, is not technology in isolation, but human reactions and interactions with technology. Tenner argues that in this era, society's bond with technology would make a therapist cringe. It is full of co-dependency, unwarranted trust and overconfidence. This theme is absolutely crucial in understanding the impact of technology on society. Technology alone is not to blame. Rather it is our behavioral responses to technology that can lead to devastating effects.

Despite limitations in predicting failure in an invention, we must continue to think deeply about the interactions of technology and society. Technology cannot exist as an isolated black box whose wiring is capable of curing social ills or causing mass devastation. It must exist as an organism having a symbiotic and sometimes even parasitic relationship with society and with other inventions. We are just beginning to realize the profound learning process involved in understanding this process. Tenner's work is an insightful opportunity to think critically on the perpetually evolving relationship between technology and society.

Elizabeth Pugel
Betsy Pugel
James Franck Institute , University of Chicago
5640 S. Ellis Avenue
Chicago, IL 60615

Article Reviews: Articles from Science on Global Warming Reviewed by Art Hobson

The journal Science has been a gold mine of reports and orginal articles on global warming. Here are reviews of articles published since December 1995.

If you come across articles from which other FPS members could benefit, please write your own brief (200 words maximum per article) review and send it to Art Hobson (addresses are on page 2).

The U.N. climate convention
Pekka E. Kauppi, 1 December 1995, p. 1454

In 1992, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change called for stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference. Kauppi, of the Finnish Forest Research Institute, argues that population growth and per capita fuel trends will make it impossible to prevent a doubling of greenhouse gas levels in the 21st century, and that climate models prediction this will be dangerous. Thus the U.N. goal is unattainable.

It's official: first glimmer of greenhouse warming seen
8 December 1995, pp. 1565-7

The massive Working Group I Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that "the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate." Due to the recent recognition of shielding by industrial aerosols the models are now in good agreement with observations. The report predicts a further 1-3.5oC increase by 2100, in addition to the 0.3-0.6oC increase that has already occurred. The well-written, comprehensive report, sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme, is published as Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, by Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Polar regions give cold shoulder to theories
8 December 1995, p. 1566

Although climate models forecast retreating polar ice and snow cover, evidence is proving hard to find. Scientists report ambiguous glimpses of greenhouse signals, and no clear evidence of a trend in sea ice thickness or ice cover. In a letter (12 January 1996, p. 129), three Norwegian scientists at the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center dispute this. They have used microwave satellite data to show a 5.8% decrease of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice area over the last 16 years.

Monsoon shrinks with aerosol modes
22 December 1995, p. 1922

Further evidence that industrial sulfur aerosols are, along with greenhouse gases, major determinants of global change. Computer models that take into account both aerosols and greenhouse gases give accurate predictions of the South Asian monsoon, while models that exclude aerosols do not. The combined aerosol and greenhouse effect reduces rainfall during the monsoons that account for most of the region's annual precipitation.

1995 the warmest year? Yes and no
12 January 1996, pp. 137-8

Preliminary data shows 1995 to be the warmest year on record, but 1995 edges out another warm year, 1990, by only 0.04oC, not a statistically significant amount. The article discusses recent trends, and the dangers of making much out of any single year.

Climate change and consensus
S. Fred Singer, 2 February 1996, 581-2

This letter from a well known global warming skeptic argues that there has been little warming for the last 50 years despite increasing greenhouse emissions, that the IPCC summary does not sufficiently emphasize that its predictions were revised downward from its 1992 report, that aerosols are poorly incorporated into the recent models, that the new IPCC time scale has been stretched out, and that others predict less warming than the IPCC's lowest prediction. Two later letters (23 February 96, p. 1042, and 15 March 1996, p.1042) rebut Singer's letter. The second letter, from four lead authors of the IPCC report, rebuts in detail each of Singer's arguments and pleads for Singer and others to "show the same concern for accuracy and balance as do those scientists who worked so hard to prepare the IPCC report."

A new dawn for sun-climate links?
8 March 1996, 1360-1

The 11- and 22-year sunspot cycles have turned up in analyses of ocean temperature and in ice cores, and appear to be correlated the sun's brightness over the last 400 years. Thus, some researchers believe that solar variations could have driven as much as half of the warming observed since 1860, but only one-third of the warming since 1970.

Warm climate surprises
Jonathan Overpeck, 29 March 1996, p. 1820-1

Overpeck, a paleoclimatologist, argues that interglacial climates are, even in the absence of any human forcing, capable of significant surprises. Ice core evidnece shows major abrupt changes during the last interglacial (120,00-130,000 years ago), and it is now clear that climate variability was much greater during the last 10,000 years than during the last 150 years. Major surprises of this type may be our biggest climate worry in years to come.

Uncertainty in climate change caused by aerosols
Stephen Schwartz and Meinrat Andreae, 24 May 1996, pp. 1121-2.

The authors, chemists at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Max Planck Institute, discuss the complex climatic influence of aerosols. They argue that we urgently need greater understanding of this influence, and fault a National Research Council report for not conveying this urgency. They fear that aerosols could be obscuring most of the global warming signal to date, and that if this is true then warming might in the future accelerate much more sharply than had been expected, as global warming emerges from the aerosol shielding.

Arrhenius and global warming
Julia Uppenbrink, 24 May 1996, p. 1122

In 1896 Svante Arrhenius was the first to make a quantitative link between changes in CO2 concentration and climate, although others had earlier considered the question qualitatively. Arrhenius' prediction, involving tens of thousands of hand calculations, of a 5-6oC increase for a doubling of CO2 was not too different from today's 1-3.5oC prediction.

Ice bubbles confirm big chill
14 June 1996, pp. 1584-5.

New data based on trapped nitrogen and methane in ice cores shows that the Younger Dryas, a cold snap 12,000 years ago, was twice as severe as was thought, and that it gripped much of the world. Ice-age Greenland was 20oC colder than today, not 10oC as had been thought. The data shows that the fundamental transition that ended the Younger Dryas occurred in only 50 years. There's been nothing like that in the last several thousand years. Researchers do not know what threw Earth's climate into crisis.

Industry group assails climate chapter
21 June 1996, p. 1734

The Global Climate Coalition, a group supported by the oil and coal industries, has attacked the 1996 IPCC report. Frederick Seitz, ex-president of Rockefeller University, chair of the George C. Marshall Institute, and 1961 president of the American Physical Society, has joined in the attack. They charge that revisions to the IPCC document violated peer review and amount to "scientific cleansing" of doubts about human influence on climate. The charges have sparked many editorials and articles in publications including The Wall Street Journal, and a defense by climate researchers who respond that changes to the penultimate draft were made only because reviewers requested them, and to fine-tune the wording to bring the report into line with the scientific consensus.

Sky-high findings drop new hints of greenhouse warming
5 July 1996, p. 34

The IPCC report's conclusion has already gained new support, from the upper atmosphere. Climate models predict that increasing greenhouse gases will cool the upper atmosphere even as they warm the lower atmosphere, because high-altitude greenhouse gases radiate their absorbed energy into space. Researchers have compared these predictions with temperatures measured by weather balloons during 1963-87 and found the predicted stratospheric cooling, along with troposheric warming and geographic variations predicted by the models. Other scientists say that this is "a very carful, deliberate piece of work," and "by far the closest [we've gotten] to a smoking gun."