Despite the huge efforts made these days to promote science and show how much ‘fun’ it is, science is, on average, less interesting than ever!
Now, anyone who predicts the demise of science, in whatever way, risks being compared to Lord Kelvin (William Thompson) or John Horgan. Thompson made the unfortunate statement: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now; all that remains is more and more precise measurement”. His timing was terrible, coming as it did, just before quantum theory and relativity.
American journalist, John Horgan, wrote The End of Science in 1998, to very ‘mixed’ reviews, especially from professional scientists. Mind you, it would be pretty odd for a professional scientist to agree with Horgan.
Now, I’m no expert on molecular biology but I suspect that there have been major advances in our understanding of a subject like epigenetics since 1998. In Physics, the Higgs particle has been discovered and in Mathematics, some famous problems, notably the Poincaré conjecture, have been solved. I suppose, though, that Horgan was talking about real paradigm-shifting developments and maybe he had a point.
But look at the SFI-funded projects, announced a few months ago. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the projects are a little bit…..I don’t know – obscure? Or perhaps it’s just the jargon-laden project titles. In any event, I’m talking here about the perception of the general audience. But, then, appealing to a wide audience is not the point of the exercise; impact is the thing.
To be fair, though, our perception of a subject depends crucially on our knowledge of that subject. I was at an immunology talk recently (I’m a chemical engineer) and while many of my colleagues thought it was a tour de force, I was bored stiff, totally bamboozled by the barrage of jargon and acronyms. I had the sense that it was good stuff but I genuinely felt a rising sense of panic as the talk seemed to go on forever!
Still, when I read the list of SFI projects, it struck me that many of the projects were devoted to the sort of topics that I skip when I read a popular science magazine. Indeed, I was in London last week and I bought Scientific American in Dublin airport. The cover story was devoted to the evolution of creativity which was quasi-science at best. The remainder was really devoted to technology rather than science. I read very little of it. I longed for an article on something more ‘exciting’ like extra-solar planets or cognitive science or prime numbers or the LHC or the latest news in drug discovery.
So, is interesting science becoming a thing of the past? Happily, I don’t think so. The ‘problem’ is that there is an awful lot of science around and the interesting stuff is a little less obvious. We know so much now that most modern science involves burrowing deep into the nitty-gritty. By its very nature, much of this science is inaccessible to the non-expert, even at a superficial level. At the same time, the profile of science has never been higher. Technological advances mean that science is part of everyday discourse. Popular science (and the marketing of science) is now big business, from Dawkins to Cox to Greene to TED.com. Most importantly of all, science is now rarely a purely academic pursuit but is inextricably linked with technological change and economic progress.
The consequence of all of this is that science has become like sport. We are bombarded with so much of it that finding the really interesting stuff needs a little bit of effort. But, in amongst the Romanian clay court tennis and American monster trucks, you will occasionally find Liverpool v. Utd.