The Columbia Journalism Review, published bimonthly by my alma mater, dishes out Darts for bad journalistic deeds and Laurels for good ones. On my previous blog, The Scientific Curmudgeon, I occasionally issued my version of Darts & Laurels, called Whacks & Pats. Whacks (as in upside the head) are bad and Pats (as in on the back) good.
My first whack is for myself (no pun intended). Re-reading “The Final Frontier,” my update of The End of Science in the October Discover, it struck me that I backpeddled when explaining why—if I really believe science is over—I still write about science, teach at a science-oriented school, even encourage young people to become scientists. I answered that
“I could be wrong—there, I’ve said it—that science will never again yield revelations as monumental as evolution or quantum mechanics. A team of neuroscientists may find an elegant solution to the neural code, or physicists may find a way to confirm the existence of extra dimensions. In the realm of applied science, we may defeat aging with genetic engineering, boost our IQs with brain implants, or even find a way to bypass Einstein’s ban on faster-than-light travel. Although I doubt these goals are attainable, I would hate for my end-of-science prophecy to become self-fulfilling by discouraging further research.”
This sounds wishy-washy now. If I were a reader, I’d whack myself upside the head and yell, “Do you believe a unified theory, immortality, warp-drive spaceships are possible or don’t you??!! Make up your mind!! If you really doubt these possibilities, you should discourage people from pursuing them!!” In retrospect, I had a failure of nerve, brought on by excessive concern about the effect that my negative views will have on impressionable young minds. It took me forever to tell my kids that there is no Santa Claus. I pretend to be tough, but I’m all squishy inside. So let me be more blunt in my advice to would-be scientists:
“By all means become a scientist. But don’t think you’re going to top Newton or Darwin or Einstein or Watson/Crick by discovering something as monumental as gravity or natural selection or quantum mechanics or relativity or the double helix, because your chances are slim to none. The era of those sorts of big discoveries is over. Also, don’t go into particle physics! Especially don’t waste your time on string theory, or loop-space theory, or multi-universe theories, or any of the other pseudo-scientific crap in physics and cosmology that we science journalists love so much. And don’t follow Steve Wolfram and other chaoplexologists chasing after a unified theory of matter-life-consciousness-everything-under-the-sun. That’s as futile as trying to prove the existence of God. Pick a real-world problem that you have some chance of resolving, preferably in a way that improves peoples’ lives. Do something useful with your talent! We need your help.”