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does science matter anymore?

Having solved all the accessible mysteries, the theory goes, science is nearing a dead end. Nonsense, counter researchers. 'We're living in a dazzling age.'

May 01, 1997|K.C. COLE | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

Biologists in Scotland cloned a sheep. Oceanographers found life thriving in the steaming, noxious vents of deep sea volcanoes--without oxygen or light. NASA found possible evidence for ancient life on Mars. All this scientific fecundity seems to fly in the face of the warnings in books, symposiums and newspaper articles over the past several decades that the end of science is near.

The end-of-science camp argues that science is all but over, in large part because of its success. Having solved the accessible mysteries, researchers are left with unanswerable questions (like the nature of mind) or untestable theories (such as string theories that work only in 10 or 11 dimensions).

But do the recent discoveries mean that reports of the death of science (to paraphrase Mark Twain) have been greatly exaggerated? Or despite cloning and the potential for Mars life, is the golden age of discovery already riding into the sunset?

To most scientists, the answer is (not surprisingly) simple. "The end-of-science argument is stunningly myopic," said Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson. "We're on a frontier with unknown terrain ahead."

"We're living in a dazzling age," said Stanford chemist Richard Zare. "It's breathtaking, the advances we're making."

On the other hand, there is ample indication that science no longer has the hold on the hearts and purse strings of the American people that it did during the golden age when it gave us Einstein and polio vaccines, men on the moon and atomic bombs. Scientists and science writers alike have been "cranking out funeral odes enough to bury us all," said physicist Frank Wilczek of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J.

Two years ago, perhaps the premier scientific instrument of the century--the superconducting super collider--was abandoned by Congress, leaving a huge empty tunnel in the ground under Waxahachie, Texas, and an equally huge hole, some physicists believe, in the search for a fundamental understanding of nature. "Six hundred million dollars just went poof," said Nick Samios, director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island.

More recently, scientific leaders representing a million engineers, mathematicians and scientists held a press conference in Washington in March to protest the fifth straight annual decline in President Clinton's proposed science budget (in constant dollars). Clearly, some scientists are worried, and with reason. Speaking to leaders of the country's national laboratories earlier this year, Martha Krebs, head of high energy physics research for the Department of Energy, warned that support for basic science was definitely waning in Congress.

***

One of the first to suggest that science as we know it was coming to an end was UC Berkeley biologist Gunther Stent, who published a book about "the end of progress" in 1969. Cloning notwithstanding, Stent stands by his book. "Not everything I said turned out to be right. But my feeling is that I was more right than wrong."

He acknowledged that his views are unpopular. "They have made me enough enemies to last a lifetime," he said.

But the issue, he said, is complicated. The cloning of a sheep, for example, was an application, not a discovery. "They didn't uncover any new things. It's a very ingenious trick." In fact, Stent said: "I don't think molecular biology exists anymore. It's all applications."

Stent was part of a 1989 panel of deep thinkers, including Nobel laureates, who met at the 25th annual Nobel Conference to discuss the issue--along with 4,000 interested participants. Then last year, science writer John Horgan published a controversial book provocatively called "The End of Science" that Krebs said was being read with interest--perhaps not surprisingly--at the highest levels in government. "It might give an excuse to cut money," said physicist David Gross, the new director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara. "If science has come to an end, it doesn't need to be funded."

Scientists concede that major discoveries can only be made once. "Once you discover something, it's hard for somebody to discover it again," said Robert Peccei, UCLA dean of science and arts.

But whether science is over, he said, is "very much in the eyes of the beholder. There are certain fields that end for a while and people do different things."

A good example of a discipline that might reach a dead end is his own field of particle physics.

The melting away of support for the superconducting super collider is a reminder, he said, that "there are limits: It takes too long. It's too much money. The tunnel you have to make is too big." To go much further in particle physics today may require building machines powerful enough to re-create small pieces of the big bang itself.

"We might get stuck," conceded Peccei. "That might be the end of that particular branch of science."

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