Science’s to do list

This review of John Maddox’s rather good overview, What Remains to be Discovered, dates back almost two decades. He knew about a really huge range of stuff – I’ve an interview with John I did to mark the 125th anniversary of Nature that I must dig out. This review is worth reposting, I think, because the big unsolved problems he highlights seem (to me) pretty much in the same state then as now. There’s been a steady flow of new science since he wrote, but the big picture looks pretty similar, no? Or do I just feel that because I’m out of touch with the genuinely new and significant?

The phrase “knowing everything about nothing”, incidentally, I stole from the title of a book by John Ziman, another man I admired (and who I knew rather better than Maddox) who is no longer with us…

Science, like war, has its foot soldiers and its grand strategists. Now that most working scientists specialise to the point of knowing everything about nothing, maybe the strategists need help. In his rather impressive new book, John Maddox sets out to play the strategist for the whole of science.

His credentials are good. As editor of the weekly journal, Nature, for more than 20 years, he had an unbeatable vantage point on where research is going. And he combines an authoritative grasp on a remarkable range of fields with a journalist’s facility with opinion. Most science writers defer to scientists. Most scientists stick to one discipline. Maddox does neither.

He builds his book around the three perennial big questions: the origins of the universe, life and mind, and uses them to organise a tour of the disciplines. We get judicious appraisals of the present state and future prospects of cosmology and particle physics, cell and molecular biology, neurobiology and computer science. Finally, he asks whether we will be around to take our science further, considering the future of global warming, the possibility of new killer diseases, and – more unexpectedly – the notion that our genes might be inherently unstable in some way.

Any of these would be bad news but optimism wins through, just as it does in his reviews of the most compelling areas of science. Maddox is more interested in understanding than application, and in every field he sees “glaring ignorance, even contradiction”, and loose ends crying out to be tied in to established theory.

Cosmology wrestles with the apparent fact that the universe contains much less stuff than it should. Fundamental physics cannot reconcile Einstein’s relativistic treatment of gravity with quantum theory. How life arose on Earth is not really understood. And we are a long way from following the workings of our brains.

In each case, though, our optimistic guide has an idea how to proceed. The effect is often like reading a benign headmaster’s report on a particularly promising pupil. Cell biologists have done splendidly this term in identifying the components of the living machinery, but really should overcome their aversion to mathematical modelling if they want to understand how all the parts work together. Evolutionary psychology has the laudable aim of showing how behaviour has been shaped by natural selection, but “plausibility rather than proof seems to have become the touchstone of what constitutes an explanation.

That judgment, like many others, strikes me as spot on. And it is for these that IU am sure many scientists will appreciate the book. Its appeal to the rest of us is as a clear account of what scientists may do next.

Maddox’s predictions require him to explain what is already established across all the fields he considers, and although he occasionally slips into the style of a commentary in Nature, his explanations are mostly clear. But it is the opinions which give them spice.

The book will also be read as a riposte to several forecasts that science will run out of steam, notably John Horgan’s The End of Science, published last year. Horgan’s case is more restricted than his title suggests – he believes that there will be no more seismic shifts in science comparable with those triggered by Newton or Einstein.

Maddox is not so sure, seeing a kind of impatience in contemporary science which declines to acknowledge that most of our successes are very recent, and may be incomplete.

But even short of rebuilding conceptual foundations, there is still a virtually unlimited amount left to do.

“The 500 years of modern science are a good beginning, but only a beginning”, he tells us. As this suggests, he has pulled off something that is too rare in science books. Maddox’s preoccupation with ignorance as much as knowledge means that he has a vision of the onward march of science that is far from triumphalist.

Newton may have played with the pebbles by an undiscovered ocean of truth, he seems to say, but we are still only paddling on the shore. Plenty of time to wade a little deeper. (1998)

John Maddox, What Remains to be Discovered, Macmillan.

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