OK, this has made me mad. John Horgan, author of the much-debated (and unread-by-me) "The End of Science", has managed to secure himself the last page of this week's New York Times Book Review on which to tell us that "Einstein Has Left the Building."
"End of Science" was notorious when it came out in the mid-90's, since it claimed that most of the major discoveries had already been made (shades of the pre-Quantum era!) and that there was little left to do in fundamental physics but fill in a few details. The obvious point it seemed he missed was that science always looks this way, until it doesn't. In 1996 we had no accelerating universe, no WMAP, no RHIC (I must get my plugs in where I can!). In 2005 we simply know more than we did 10 years ago, but if science policy makers would have taken Horgan seriously (at least at the book-review level) we wouldn't have learned nearly as much, since they would have been under the impression there was nothing left to do.
The new article leaves a bad taste in my mouth as the World Year comes to a close. Horgan muses on how nothing important happened in 2005 despite all of the WYOP hype. Moreover, he seems to be implying that all of the attention paid to Einstein just makes us more cognizant of the possibility that there will never be another of his ilk. Rather than grapple with the big questions of the limits of time, space, and even technology, he argues that physics is far too involved with questions beyond the realm of testability, trotting out the usual complaints from him and others about the inaccessibility of string theory, extra dimensions, etc.
I have no interest in taking him on point-by-point, but I think he misses several obvious points. Firstly, even Einstein was "no Einstein" in 1905. The papers came out, and took years for the importance of all of them to be fully recognized by the scientific community. Thus, 2005 may well be a watershed year in science, but we just won't know that for at least a few years.
Of course, that comment could and does apply to any year. What really frustrates me is that he has missed the point of the world year of physics altogether. While the hype may have been over-the-top at times, it really revealed that people -- normal people, everywhere -- really like to hear about, and talk about, science. Moreover, while we may not get too many Einstein's, both in terms of depth and breadth of intellect, as well as moral commitment, we've at least reawakened a general sense that 1) science is important (take that, Dover), and 2) it's made by individuals (and not just institutions and governments, but that's another rant), and 3) no-one knows when a major discovery will happen. I can't imagine that the world experts in 1904 would have seen 1905 coming around the corner -- and I have trouble believing that science writers, or anyone, can predict the shape of the science to come. That said, nor should they preclude that science from happening by fomenting radical skepticism about the whole project.
OK, I'm not mad anymore. Back to work!