Scientific Advancement
July 17, 2004 8:41 PM   Subscribe

Is there a limit to scientific advancement? If there is only a certain number of elements to the universe, will there reach a technology plateau?

will technology plateau? would be better.
posted by the fire you left me to Science & Nature (23 answers total)
There won't be an end to questions. I do think there's a fundamental limit to knowability. I'm not sure that we'll recognize it if we ever reach it.
posted by Gyan at 8:47 PM on July 17, 2004

Jim Horgan think so, but I'd call that a career advancement stratetgy.

If you're afraid science is ending, read up on the Singularity or about PEAR
posted by troutfishing at 8:48 PM on July 17, 2004

the fire you left me:will technology plateau?

There's no end to combinatorics, so I guess not.
posted by Gyan at 8:48 PM on July 17, 2004

Response by poster: For example, if there is a non infinite set of elements, would there also be a non infinite set of physical laws, thereby limiting advancement of a known set?
posted by the fire you left me at 9:50 PM on July 17, 2004

"There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, All that remains is more and more precise measurement." - Lord Kelvin, 1900
posted by kickingtheground at 9:53 PM on July 17, 2004

chemistry is a lie.
posted by Kwantsar at 10:42 PM on July 17, 2004

I really don't see what the number of elements has to do with scientific advancement. What's Darmstadtium done for you lately?
posted by kjh at 11:17 PM on July 17, 2004

Well, strictly speaking, there are already entire sets of questions that science is ill-equiped to deal with, and may never be. But outside of that:

In the 20th century we've learned that extremely complex behavior can arise from even a small set of rules. We also learned that you can either have an incomplete set of rules that govern a formal system, or an inconsistent one. So even assuming the universe could be described by a finite formal system, we've really got enough to chew on for a while.

And then there's the possibility that it's weirder than that, and a formal system won't do.

Don't plan on getting bored or reaching the limits of scientific usefulness anytime soon.
posted by weston at 11:26 PM on July 17, 2004

science != technology
posted by funkbrain at 11:57 PM on July 17, 2004

Is there a limit to scientific advancement? Will we reach a technology plateau?

No. There is no conceivable limit to the amount of complexity that can be created within this universe; even if humans remain primarily bound to a single planet for a very long time, there is no reasonable limit to the number of things we can do with the matter available to us before the heat death of this universe.

There is a limit to the amount of information obtainable within the scope of any given scientific discipline (and some disciplines have already approached that limit). However, science drives technology, and technology drives science, which means new disciplines arise from technological advances. They might no longer deal with the basic properties of matter or the complexity created by nature, but instead with the complexity created by humans, but they are valid disciplines nonetheless.

The perception of progress and its acceleration is a completely different matter. When we start engineering digital consciences that exceed the capabilities of our own, and transferring our consciences to digital media, everything will change, including this. Even before then, the social perception of scientific progress may change significantly - but I don't think it will be in the deccelerating direction.
posted by azazello at 12:44 AM on July 18, 2004

The above discounts the possibility of a sudden and total cataclysm which completely cripples the humanity's ability for scientific and technological output. It's not really feasible to estimate the probability of this since we don't have perfect capability to predict astrophysical events (asteroids, supernovae and stuff) and new weapons of mass destruction that may develop before humanity becomes highly decentralized.

As for social factors impeding scientific+technological progress on a world-wide scale... well, I don't see how that can reasonably happen.
posted by azazello at 12:53 AM on July 18, 2004

"Everything that can be invented has been invented." Charles Duell, commissioner of the US Patent Office, 1899
posted by caddis at 6:04 AM on July 18, 2004

it seems at least possible that fundamental physics won't get much further once we have a unified theory, since we seem to understand most energies and scales pretty well. but that's very different from saying that technology will plateau - or even that more "complex" sciences like chemistry and biology are limited.

in other words, physics is looking for the simple, consistent, underlying structure to what is. it's not at all obvious that this should be simple, or even amenable to mathematics, but it seems to be, and we seem to be closing in on it. but that's only the very basis. it's trivial - consider fluid dynamics - to get from that simple basis to something incredibly complex. technology, biology, chemistry, etc all explore this more complex regime and are likely indefinite in extent (save for some useless bounds like the upper limit on the number of accessible states of the universe, given the consitutent particles, energy, etc).

much more questionable is whether humankind will get much further. we are screwing up the planet amazingly quickly.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:23 AM on July 18, 2004

andrew cooke - that's the real limit factor, the "funnel" (if we're lucky) or sudden catastrophic collapse.

We need bigger brains to fully compreghend our mischief - but, would that merely compound the problem ?

(The Chalice and The Blade's hypothesized bifurcation point notwithstanding, I've come to see our current predicament as an almost inevitable end point - and cul de sac - arising from the intersection of Homo Sapiens' capabilities and it's instinctual tendencies.

It's the Prisoner's Dilemna, in a sense, writ large over time via an unbroken arms race - since, at least, the advent of the Holocene, that drives technology and - later when it comes to be understood as such - science.

In my more hopeful days, I think "spiritual transcendence to an appreciation of the interconnectedness of all phenomenon" and - in bleaker moments - I prescribe genetic modification, a type of transhuman or extropian modification for greater intelligence and a higher level of altruism.
posted by troutfishing at 7:53 AM on July 18, 2004

On other days, I merely pout and sulk in the corner.
posted by troutfishing at 7:56 AM on July 18, 2004

Your point about there being only finitely many elements is interesting, but off base for a few reasons. Even if the question is restricted (as others have hinted it should be) to something like:

  • Since there are only finitely many building blocks, will chemistry ever be complete?
then the answer is still no.

There are (currently) 116 elements. Let's look at another, related, area with far fewer building blocks. There are 4 nucleotides, from which the DNA of every organism is built. This has been known since at least Watson and Crick (I'm not sure about the history here). We know the building blocks, and we know how they can combine. But we're still a long long way from being done with genetics.

One reason is what Gyan alluded to above: the combinatorics, even of this much smaller system, are massive. Human DNA has something like 3×109 base pairs, so the number of possible DNA sequences is the number of combinations of the letters G, C, T, A of that length, or 4^{3×109}. Um, that's really really big.

Another huge reason is that combinatorics don't have the whole story; topology has much more. For example, RNA is also built from four letters (G, C, U, and A), but is single-stranded, so on the one hand is "simpler", but on the other, it can fold into much more interesting shapes. The field of Protein Folding is still in its infancy stages (you can get in on the ground floor), but already hints that how things fit together is perhaps even more important than how they're put together. (Specifically, proteins fold in a continuous space, so we're already way outside our original finite situation.)

For a simple concrete example of topology's precedence over combinatorics, look at chirality. Limonene is the molecule that makes citrus fruits smell like citrus. However, it comes in two kinds: left-handed and right-handed. The left-handed one appears in lemons, while the right-handed one appears in oranges. The left-handed one fits in different smell receptors in your nose than the right-handed one, so they have different smells. There's information there that isn't encoded in the sequence of elements involved, or even in what order they're connected to each other, but in the spatial orientation of those connections.

Finally, and on a slightly different tack: the question just isn't answerable. Looking at the quotes above from Patent Office Commissioners, etc., you can imagine a time 100 years ago or so when people might have said "If we can figure out the structure of the genome, that'll be it! We can all go home!" But of course gaining that one piece of knowledge isn't the end of the story, because new information always points to new questions. (Well, almost always.) From the point of view of 100 years ago, there's no way we could have known that protein-folding was where the real action was; from today's point of view, there's no way to know where the next "real action" will be.
posted by gleuschk at 8:14 AM on July 18, 2004

gleuschk: I was imprecise, it seems, but I meant "combinatorics" to encompass both topology & combinatorics.
posted by Gyan at 8:51 AM on July 18, 2004

Interestingly, science as a discipline is out on a limb right now, operating with incompatible experiemental models for different contexts (newtonian/quantum). I think one of the most interesting "advancements" in the field itself is the tendency to just accept what works, even if it can't be explained, reconciled with other data, or even grasped by a human conceptual frame.

There seems to be an assumption that a Unified Theory will come along and set everything right. But what if it doesn't? Will science ultimately break down? Splinter into factions that can't communicate? Will the irrelevance of the explanation, in the face of "what works," just point to the irrelevance of science itself?

technolofy != science
technology = "what works"
science = "..." Um, what is it again?
posted by scarabic at 9:53 AM on July 18, 2004

I like weston and gleuschk'a answers. I might add this:

If there is only a certain number of elements to the universe, will there reach a technology plateau?

Whats an element? From a physics perspective we havent really been able to conclude that there are separate "things" and its not all just an illusion. There are no "materials" in the universe only forces and relationships.
The notion of an "object" is one mostly created by our own mind.

Point particles never made any sense because of the infinities involved. What are strings made of? Knotted space-time? Whats space-time? What is it really?

combinatorics depends on the existence of discrete objects but maybe all the properties of our universe are just consequences of the particular (and maybe arbitrary) shape of a manifold. But still: How coarse is this manifold? What does it mean to be part of the manifold and to be "outside" of it?
posted by vacapinta at 11:33 AM on July 18, 2004

i'll have what vacapinta's having.
posted by quonsar at 12:10 PM on July 18, 2004

I was just reading a comment in Science on theoretical physics and came across this line, which I thought was appropriate:
"If it is indeed the case that the vacuum is characterized by a hierarchical cascade of universalities, then all of our allegedly fundamental knowledge about it is temporary, and destined to pass away in the future as experiments improve."
-R.B. Laughlin, 2004
So, is it possible that all the stuff we "know" could just be analogies to fill in the holes that our current methods don't know are there?
posted by nprigoda at 12:32 PM on July 18, 2004

And I guess I should also say that I recognize that I'm wildly extrapolating from Dr. Laughlin's comment on one specific thing, but my mind is about to explode, so i thought I'd ask
posted by nprigoda at 12:32 PM on July 18, 2004

"Everything that can be invented has been invented." Charles Duell, commissioner of the US Patent Office, 1899

This quote is almost certainly apocryphal. Many people have looked for a definitive source and failed to find one. The Stumpers mailing list (think AskMe on crack, albeit limited to specific factual questions, populated entirely by reference librarians) has looked into this several times.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:45 PM on July 18, 2004

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