The Know-It-All Era

IT MUST BE THAT MILLENNIUM THING. First, political theorist Francis Fukuyama gave us, in 1992, "The End of History." Then 1993 brought David Lindley's "The End of Physics." Apparently authors aren't finished killing off the liberal art, quite yet. The latest grim reaper is John Horgan with The End of Science (308 pages. Addison-Wesley. $24), in which he tries to convince us that science--"the primordial quest to understand the universe and our place in it"--will soon be over, if it isn't already. (Applied science will continue as long as consumers demand cool widgets.) The reasons, he says, are both political, as governments that foot the bill for much research lose patience with its diminishing returns, and intellectual. This last is by far the more interesting possibility, and one for which Horgan, a writer at Scientific American, is indebted to literary critic Harold Bloom's notion of the "anxiety of influence." just as Bloom argued that no writer can surpass Milton or Shakespeare, so no scientist, contends Horgan, can do better than Darwin's theory of evolution or physicists' quantum mechanics. "The greatest barrier to future progress in pure science," he writes, "is its past success."

This is a fascinating thesis, and one Horgan buttresses with arguments from history and philosophy as well as science. He takes us on a merry tour of scientific disciplines to argue that many of them have already ceased being science. In physics, for instance, one cutting-edge theory holds that the world has 10 dimensions. But testing it would require a machine larger than the galaxy. The theory can be judged only by the criterion of "elegance," not by the empiricism that defines science. Horgan even doubts that breakthroughs in understanding such mysteries as consciousness will involve bold new paradigms.

Horgan structures "The End" around interviews with leading philosophers and scientists. (Most of these have appeared, in different form, as profiles in Scientific American, where Horgan reigns as the modern master of the form.) After drawing out researchers on their work, Horgan pops The Question: is science over? Most answer him with variants on "of course not." But Horgan is almost arrogantly dismissive of those who disagree with him. He charges MIT linguist Noarm Chomsky with "denying the implication of his own ideas," and accuses him and others of "wishful thinking" in holding on to a belief in science as infinite quest. Horgan, though, undercuts his own thesis when he suggests that superintelligent computers will carry on the quest for knowledge. If there is no real science left to do, why should it matter whether organic brains or silicon ones are doing it? Is it not possible that theorists will find causes of the order in biological systems beyond natural selection? That there is a physics deeper than quantum mechanics? The belief that everything in science's future will pale beside relativity and DNA seems like a failure of the imagination, but this book is no less provocative for that.