Saturday, 6 November 2010

The End of Discovery – Russell Stannard ****

Russell Stannard argues here that at some point in the future we will have reached a stage where no new scientific discoveries can be made. It is unlikely we will have discovered everything about the physical world – there is no reason to believe that our brains are equipped to fully comprehend nature, Stannard argues, and even where we are not held back by fundamental limits to our understanding, we will face practical difficulties in continuing to make discoveries (we can’t build ever bigger particle accelerators, for instance). Instead, we will have discovered everything we are able to as human beings.
Each chapter looks at specific questions and mysteries in science that look like they could be beyond us to solve, and which may hint at where the boundaries lie of what we are capable of knowing. Some of the questions looked at may in fact soon have answers – is there a Higgs particle?; what is the nature of dark matter? – whilst some (the more philosophical questions) do indeed look like they might be too hard to solve – what is consciousness?; do we have free will?; where do the laws of nature come from?; can we talk meaningfully about a reality which is independent of what we observe?
Because of the background information given to each of these questions, the book serves as a good introduction to some of the key concepts and ideas in modern science, and in particular modern physics, towards which the book is heavily slanted. The explanations are clearly aimed at non-specialists, and there is only one occasion where the writing gets a little too technical – this is in the section on the unification of the electromagnetic and weak forces (the question being considered here is whether we will ever be able to confirm whether a Grand Unified Theory of three of the four fundamental forces exists).
What I would have liked to read more about, however, is whether this issue – will scientific discovery some day come to an end? – should even occupy us greatly. I’m not sure we can answer it with any certainty (although I am inclined to speculate that science will always continue to progress but with diminishing returns), and as Stannard acknowledges, even if we do reach the stage where no further progress in our understanding can be made, we will probably not be aware we have reached this end point. I am tempted to think that, for the time being at least, we should not worry too much about making grand predictions about the future, and that we should instead just get on with the science.
Putting this to one side, though, the large amount of topics covered, together with Stannard’s accessible writing, means this is still an enjoyable and worthwhile read. If you want a guide to some of the most difficult questions scientists are struggling with in the 21st century, I would recommend this book.
Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

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