(Roughly) Daily

“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”*…


As the number of researcher has grown, the productivity of research has fallen according to a graph in “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?”, by economists Nicholas Bloom, Charles Jones, John Van Reenen and Michael Webb. Credit: Charles I. Jones

Once again, I’m brooding over science’s limits. I recently posted Q&As with three physicists with strong opinions on the topic–David DeutschMarcelo Gleiser and Martin Rees–as well as this column: “Is Science Infinite?” Then in March I attended a two-day brainstorming session–which I’ll call “The Session”–with 20 or so science-y folks over whether science is slowing down and what we can do about it.

The Session was inspired in part by research suggesting that scientific progress is stagnating. In “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?”, four economists claim that “a wide range of evidence from various industries, products, and firms show[s] that research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply.” The economists are Nicholas Bloom, Charles Jones and Michael Webb of Stanford and John Van Reenen of MIT.

As an counter-intuitive example, they cite Moore’s Law, noting that the “number of researchers required today to achieve the famous doubling every two years of the density of computer chips is more than 18 times larger than the number required in the early 1970s.” The researchers found similar trends in research related to agriculture and medicine. More and more research on cancer and other illnesses has produced fewer and fewer lives saved.

These findings corroborate analyses presented by economists Robert Gordon in The Rise and Fall of American Growth and Tyler Cowen in The Great Stagnation. Bloom, Jones, Webb and Van Reenen also cite “The Burden of Knowledge and the ‘Death of the Renaissance Man’: Is Innovation Getting Harder?”, a 2009 paper by Benjamin Jones. He presents evidence that would-be innovators require more training and specialization to reach the frontier of a given field. Research teams are also getting bigger, and the number of patents per researcher has declined.

The economists are concerned primarily with what I would call applied science, the kind that fuels economic growth and increases wealth, health and living standards. Advances in medicine, transportation, agriculture, communication, manufacturing and so on. But their findings resonate with my claim in The End of Science that “pure” science—the effort simply to understand rather than manipulate nature–is bumping into limits…

John Horgan unpacks some of the dynamics that lead him to his gloomy conclusion in “Is science hitting a wall?”  It’s a fascinating, illuminating, and eminently worth the read… even if in the end it’s unconvincing, to your correspondent at least.

Readers might note that analogous sentiments reigned at the end of the 19th century (as per the quote that provides this post’s title).  Max Planck recalled being discouraged by a teacher (around 1875) from pursuing physics: “in this field,”  Philipp von Jolly told Planck, “almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes.”  Planck ignored his advice– and became one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, which gave physics a very rich new life during the 20th century.  As we contemplate with Horgan the possible  “end” of its utility, we might take some consolation that brave new models are emerging, theories that might power physics– and science more generally– for at least another century.  Consider, for example, the theory that Stephen Hawking published two weeks before his death, proposing a method of detecting “the multiverse.”

* a quote widely– and incorrectly– attributed to William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, circa 1900.  It is actually a paraphrase of aa 1894 statement made by another great physicist,  Albert A. Michelson.


As we ponder progress, we might spare a thought for Benjamin Franklin; he died on this date in 1790.  One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Franklin was a renowned polymath: a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity.  As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod and the Franklin stove, among other innovations.   And as a social entrepreneur (who grasped the fact that by united effort a community could have amenities which only the wealthy few can afford for themselves), he helped establish several institutions people now take for granted: a fire company (1736), a library (1731), an insurance company (1752), an academy (the University of Pennsylvania, 1751), a hospital (1751), and the U.S. Postal Service (starting as postmaster of the Colonies in 1753, then becoming U.S. Postmaster during the Revolution).  In most cases these foundations were the first of their kind in North America.



Written by LW

April 17, 2018 at 1:01 am

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