article-71342_1280.jpg

In science we learn about the innermost workings of nature through a clever combination of theory, experiment, and observation. We develop and extend hypotheses using the language of mathematics. We go around the Earth and the cosmos staring at things, cataloging and categorizing them. We set up controlled experiments, testing one hypothesis against another. We learn a little bit, and we repeat. Again and again.

It’s a straightforward formula, but can it work forever?

In principle, of course. We haven’t even come close to mining all the possible sources of rich data and information in the universe. We haven’t scoured the ground or the heavens and plucked every last bit of information from them. We havn’t run every possible kind of experiment with every possible kind of control. We haven’t stretched our mathematics to the breaking point, exploring and exhausting every possible and potential model of nature. We haven’t squeezed these scientific stones of all their blood yet.

We’re not done yet, and we still have a lot to learn.

But it’s getting harder and harder.

And worse, it’s getting more and more expensive.

Back in Ye Olden Times, a single fairly well-to-do guy (or gal) in a fancy wig could crank out some new feats of mathematics, fashion a telescope or microscope, scribble down some notes, run a few experiments, and make a major breakthrough. Even in the 20th century, a Nobel Prize could be won by a single guy (or gal) for something thy cooked up in the academic equivalent of their mom’s garage. Einstein formulated an entire new description of gravity after planting the seeds for a few new branches of physics using the the power of thought, pencil, and paper alone (although I must admit that using Albert as an example might be cheating a bit).

It’s hard to say the same today. Science is advanced not by individuals, but by collaborations numbering in the dozens, hundreds, and in some cases thousands. A single top-tier researcher is more like a CEO, heading an army of students, grad students, postdocs, and junior colleagues. To crack some of the deepest mysterious of the cosmos, we have to propose billion-dollar-plus missions that take a literal lifetime to plan, design, build, deploy, and run. A single launch failure can end a dozen careers in a single tragic fireball.

It’s getting harder and harder to dig into nature’s secrets. We can keep pushing as long as the public has the appetite to pay the bills. The major question, though: how long can it last?


2 Comments