Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Last 50 Years: Not What I Expected

For some reason, I was remembering today the predictions of the early 1990s that “all the great ideas have been found” already, and that little remained to be discovered. I asked myself, compared to 50 years ago when I first encountered various scientific and social-science disciplines, how far we had come since then? What had I expected, and what did we get? What was new and made me rethink things? What had made a big splash but was still not really revolutionary enough? Here’s my list.
Physics. I hoped for fusion as a new power source by now. I hoped for new containment of antimatter as a rocket fuel. I hoped for a full explanation of quantum phenomena. I can’t say any of these things has arrived. Compared to them, greater knowledge of subatomic particles and the beginnings of the Big Bang, better Grand Unified Theories, and the like seem like small change. Maybe in the next 50 years …
Environment. Of all the areas of scientific inquiry, this I believe has brought forth the most astonishing new ideas. Despite the threat of climate change, I am happy I have lived to learn the subtlety and variety of the chemical cycle between earth, sky, and life, now and in the past. In the 1960s, none of this was apparent; there was no concept of ecosystem, and the effects of climate on everything were barely beginning to be understood. I don’t care if we still can’t predict long-term weather well; what has been discovered is fascinating.
Biology. I give this mixed reviews. It seemed apparent to everyone in the 1960s that so much about the human body remained to be discovered. Now we have sequenced the genome and are beginning to identify artificial proteins, and yet the effects on disease treatments and our knowledge of the human brain are still slow to arrive. Granted, knowledge of our DNA ancestry is a great new window into prehistory and anthropology; nevertheless, this belongs more to applications than to fundamental new ideas.
Economics. Since my first economics class in college, I have been hoping for insights into how economies evolve with technological change. Yes, the theory of productivity has advanced; but not to the point where policy-makers can exert much control over it. The one area where I feel a surprising amount of good new ideas have come forth is international economics, where I believe there is a far greater understanding of factors such as exchange rates, an understanding that does not prevent horrible world-wide crashes but gives a smart policy maker the chance to avert them. We appear to know much more about gold as a standard, about fixed exchange rates, and about central-bank policy than we did back in the 1960s, or even the 1980s. Alas, the intervention of politics and the interests of the rich into economic research have prevented much more from being done.
Mathematics. I confess to being spoiled by the efforts of giants such as Godel before I was born in discovering the concept of unknowability. While chaos theory and networking theory have been fascinating, I think that the work of the 1970s in applied mathematics, in exploring undecidability and “effective” uncomputability (NP-complete algorithms), not to mention “problem solution lower bounds”, are surprisingly profound and should rank among the top new ideas in mathematics in the last 50 years – certainly not something I would have expected, since computers were barely visible to me in 1960. Of course, since I have spent my life since then in efforts related to computer science, I may be prejudiced; but I still believe that those who learn about unknowability grapple with a shift in perception almost as significant as that faced by those looking at Einstein’s theory of relativity in the early 1900s.
Computer Science. As Sesame Street would say, one of these things is not like the others … but I throw it in only to discard it. Yes, the advent of computers has changed our way of life profoundly over the last 50 years in ways that the sciences listed above cannot match; but really new ideas that profoundly alter the way one looks at the world? Unless you include the undecidability results of the 1970s – and those I prefer to classify under mathematics – I don’t think so. Nanotechnology? Application of lasers? Email? The Web? As technologies, their effective is pervasive; but I have never felt they offered a fundamental alternation in my view of the world. Maybe if artificial intelligence or linguistics had advanced further, those areas would provide new insights – certainly the idea that intuitive thought finds exceptions more powerful as learning aids than corroborations is interesting. But no; I don’t see any blockbusters here.
Looking over this list, I am struck by how wrong I was about the direction from which fundamental new scientific ideas would come over the last 50 years. It makes me very cautious about treating science as leading steadily into new technology, and technology as leading steadily into productivity and better living standards. I could be happily underestimating; I could be unhappily overestimating. One thing, though: the arrival of fundamental ideas has not flagged, and I can hope to be pleasantly surprised for the next 50 years – or whatever.

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