Here is a short feature I wrote for the summer term’s issue of I,Science – Imperial College’s termly science magazine. Enjoy!
So, what is the demarcation between concepts that seem crazy now but might be realised eventually, and things that are forever impossible? Are there limits to how much we can ever predict? Are there scientific problems that will forever baffle us – phenomena that simply transcend human understanding? – Lord Martin Rees, From Here to Infinity, 2011
Is there a limit to what science can achieve? Will we reach a moment in time when the scientific process will simply ground to a halt? “It would take a courageous person to say no. The history of the last few millennia shows us how easy it is to underestimate the reach of scientific investigation,” explains Professor Stephen Curry, Imperial physicist.
Scientists all over the world dream of discovering so much. Some things, such as the Higgs boson, seem tantalisingly within reach. However, there are still many questions leave even the brightest among us scratching their heads. For example, what is ‘reality’? Science increasingly relies heavily on technology, demonstrating how limited we already are by our physiology. Could, in the words of Lord Rees, “some branches of science come to a halt because we bump up against limits to what our brains can understand, rather than because the subject is exhausted?”
Many think that this won’t be a problem. They believe the scientific method, where theories are tested experimentally and reviewed by peers, will eventually explain everything. Although we may not be able to explain a phenomena or a result in the present day, it does not mean that, in time, an explanation is not within our grasp.
But UCL neuroscientist, Professor Sophie Scott, suggests that it is a case of waiting until conditions are just right for the discovery to be made. “Scientists need to be at the right time, and place in history, to have the techniques/tools to get the science done.”
However, even if the scientific method is infallible, will our culture hold us back from pushing the boundaries of our knowledge further? We live by a moral code that prevents us from harming others, and lays out ethical guidelines for research. Although this is positive, could more be understood about the world if, for example, more experiments were done on people with illnesses, or more animals tested on? This is an extremely shocking thought, but the society we currently live in will hopefully prevent the instances from the past of this occurring from being repeated.
We think only of science in terms of who we are as humans now, and in terms of what we already know. Science may indeed have limits, but at the moment we may not be capable of appreciating or understanding what those might be.
Professor Nick Franks, Head of Cell and Molecular Biology at Imperial and Fellow of the Royal Society, is still hopeful though: “Science is the knowledge gained by systematically investigating the world around us, so I cannot see how there could be a limit to this. There may be things we will never know but science will not stop trying to figure them out.”