2016-01-05

Desperately seeking the next scientific revolution

If you still believe in the ambient narrative on the accelerated path of scientific and technological progress, it's time to read You Call this Progress? on the excellent Tom Murphy's blog Do the Math. I'm a bit older than the author, just enough to have seen a few last but not least scientific achievements of the past century happening between my birth and his one. The paper of Watson & Crick on DNA structure was published in Nature a few days after I was born. My childhood time saw the discovery of the cosmic microwave background and general acceptance of the Big Bang theory, experimental confirmation and acceptance of the plate tectonics theory. While I was a student the standard model of microphysics was completed. Meanwhile chaos theory, of which mathematical premices had been discovered by Poincar√© at the very beginning of the century, was setting the limits of predictability of natural systems evolution, even under deterministic laws.

This set of discoveries was somehow the bouquet final of a golden age of scientific revolutions which contibuted to our current vision of the world, starting in the 19th century with thermodynamics, theory of species evolution, foundation of microbiology, electromagnetism unification, followed at the beginning of the 20th century by relativity and quantum mechanics, two pillars for our current understanding of microphysics and cosmology, from energy production and nucleosynthesis in stars to structure of galaxies and visible universe at large. Put together, those revolutions spanning about 150 years from 1825 to 1975 set the basis for the mainstream scientific narrative, giving an awesome but broadly consistent (if you don't drill too much in the details, see below) account of our universe history, from Big Bang to galaxies, stars and planets formation and evolution, our small Earth and life at its surface, bacteria, dinosaurs and you and me. A narrative we've come to like and make ours thanks to excellent popularization. We like to be children of the stars, and to wonder, looking at the night sky, if we are the only ones.

As Tom Murphy clearly arguments, this narrative has not substantially changed since 40 years, and has not seriously been challenged by further discoveries. Many details of the story have been clarified, thanks to improved computing power, data acquisition, and spatial exploration. We've discovered thousands of exoplanets as soon as we had the technical ability to detect them, but that did not come as a surprise, and in fact what would have been really disturbing would have been not to discover any. The same lack of surprise happened with gravitational lenses first discovered in 1979 but predicted by general relativity. And no new unexpected particle has been discovered despite billions of dollars dedicated to the Large Hadron Collider, the largest experimental infrastructure ever built.

Could that mean that the golden age of scientific revolutions is really behind us, and all we have to do in the future is to keep on building on top of them an apparently unbound number of technological applications? In other words, that no new radical paradigm shift, similar to the ones of the 1825-1975 period, is likely to happen? Before making such a bold prediction, it would be safe to remember those famous for having proven wrong in the past in pretending that there was nothing new to be discovered.

Actually, major issues already known by 1975 are still open. In physics, the unification of interactions needs to solve strong inconsistencies between relativity and quantum theory, an issue with which Albert Einstein himself struggled until his death, not to speak about the mysterious dark matter and dark energy needed by theory to account for the accelerated expansion of the universe. The latter is actually one of the rare important and unexpected discoveries of the end of the 20th century. In natural science, the process of apparition of life on Earth has still to be clarified, as well as the correlative issue of the existence of extraterrestrial life.

The number of scientists and scientific publications since 1975 has kept growing exponentially, as well as the power of data acquisition, storage and computing technology. With no result comparable in importance for our understanding of the universe to what Galileo discovered in the single year 1610 simply by turning the first telescope towards the Moon, Venus and Jupiter. The general process of science and technology evolution in the past has been that improved technology and instrumentation yields new results pushing towards theoretical revolutions and paradigm shifts. But strangely enough, the unprecented explosion of technologies since half a century has produced nothing of the kind.

Is it really so? Some scientists pretend that there actually is a revolution going on, but as usual mainstream science establishment is rejecting it. This is for example the position of Rupert Sheldrake in this article of 2012 The New Scientific Revolution. Indeed, the theories Sheldrake is defending, such as Morphic Resonance and Morphic Fields, are really disruptive and alluring, but refuted as non-scientific by the majority of his peers. I'm not a biologist, so I won't venture in this debate, and let readers make their own mind about it.