John Horgan (journalist)

American science journalist

John Horgan (born in New York, 23 June 1953) is an American science journalist best known for his 1996 book The End of Science. He has written for many publications, including National Geographic, Scientific American, The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, and IEEE Spectrum.

John Horgan, 2007

Quotes edit

  • In the early 1990s, I came to suspect that the quest for a unified theory is religious rather than scientific. Physicists want to show that all things came from one thing: a force, or essence, or membrane wriggling in eleven dimensions, or something that manifests perfect mathematical symmetry. In their search for this primordial symmetry, however, physicists have gone off the deep end, postulating particles and energies and dimensions whose existence can never be experimentally verified.
  • Our descendants will learn much more about nature, and they will invent gadgets even cooler than smart phones. But their scientific version of reality will resemble ours, for two reasons: First, ours… is in many respects true; most new knowledge will merely extend and fill in our current maps of reality rather than forcing radical revisions. Second, some major remaining mysteries—Where did the universe come from? How did life begin? How, exactly, does a chunk of meat make a mind?—might be unsolvable.
  • Over the last few decades, physics in the grand mode practiced by Hawking and Rees has become increasingly disconnected from empirical evidence. Proponents of string and multiverse models tout their mathematical elegance, but strings are too small and multiverses too distant to be detected by any plausible experiment.

The End of Science (1996) edit

John Horgan, The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (1996)

  • Science has only existed for a few hundred years, and its most spectacular achievements have occurred within the last century. Viewed from a historical perspective, the modern era of rapid scientific and technological progress appears to be not a permanent feature of reality, but an abberation, a fluke, a product of a singular convergence of social, intellectual, and political factors.
    • p. 14
  • Of the three great skeptics I interviewed, Popper was the first to make his mark. His philosophy stemmed from his effort to distinguish pseudoscience, such as Marxism or astrology or Freudian psychology, from genuine science, such as Einstein's theory of relativity. The latter, Popper decided, was testable; it made predictions about the world that could be empirically checked. The logical positivists had said as much. But Popper denied the positivist assertion that scientists can prove a theory through induction, or repeated empirical tests or observations. One never knows if one's observations have been sufficient; the next observation might contradict all that preceded it. Observations can never prove a theory but can only disprove, or falsify it. Popper often bragged that he had "killed" logical positivism with this argument.
    • p. 27
  • Kuhn's recognition that science might cease—leaving us with what Charles Sanders Peirce had defined as the "truth" about nature—made it even more imperative for Kuhn than for Popper to challenge science's authority, to deny that science can ever arrive at absolute truth. "The one thing I think you shouldn't say is that now we've found out what the world is really like," Kuhn said. "Because that's not what I think the game is about."
    • Ch. 2 : The End of Philosophy
  • Feyerabend's Dadaesque rhetoric concealed a deadly serious point: the human compulsion to find absolute truths, however noble, too often culminates in tyranny. Feyerabend attacked science not because he truly believed that it had no more claim to truth than did astrology. Quite the contrary. Feyerabend attacked science because he recognized—and he was horrified by—its power, its potential to stamp out the diversity of human thought and culture. He objected to scientific certainty for moral and political, rather than for epistemological, reasons.
    • p. 48
  • Between sessions at a physics conference, I asked a number of attendees: Who is the smartest physicist of them all? ...the name mentioned most often was Witten's. He seemed to evoke a special kind of awe, as though he belonged to a category unto himself. He is often likened to Einstein; one colleague reached even further back for a comparison, suggesting that Witten possessed the greatest mathematical mind since Newton.
    • p. 60
  • Newton's version of gravity violates common sense. How can one thing tug at another across vast spans of space? ...Newton's formalism nonetheless provided an astonishingly accurate means of calculating the orbits of planets; it was too effective to deny.
    • p. 66
  • In Theories of Everything... John Barrow argued that Gödel's incompleteness theorem undermines the very notion of a complete theory of nature. Gödel established that any moderately complex system of axioms inevitably raises questions that cannot be answered about the axioms. The implication is that any theory will always have loose ends. Barrow also pointed out that a unified theory of particle physics would not really be a theory of everything, but only a theory of all particles and forces. The theory would have little or nothing to say about phenomena that make our lives meaningful, such as love or beauty.
    • p. 66
  • Physicists do not believe quantum mechanics because it explains the world, but because it predicts the outcome of experiments with almost miraculous accuracy. Theorists kept predicting new particles and other phenomena, and experiments kept bearing out those predictions.
    • p. 70
  • Einstein had drawn attention to nonlocality in 1935 in an effort to show that quantum mechanics must be flawed. ...Einstein proposed a thought experiment—now called the EPR experiment—involving two particles that spring from a common source and fly in opposite directions.
    According to the standard model of quantum mechanics, neither particle has a definite position or momentum before it is measured; but by measuring the momentum of one particle, the physicist instantaneously forces the other particle to assume a fixed position... Deriding this effect as "spooky action at a distance," Einstein argued that it violated both common sense and his own theory of special relativity, which prohibits the propagation of effects faster than the speed of light; quantum mechanics must therefore be an incomplete theory. In 1980, however, a group of French physicists carried out a version of the EPR experiment and showed that it did indeed give rise to spooky action. (The reason that the experiment does not violate special relativity is that one cannot exploit nonlocality to transmit information.)
    • p. 83
  • Of course, the apparent disarray could have stemmed entirely from my own ignorance. But when I revealed my impression of confusion and dissonance to one of the attendees, he reassured me that my perception was accurate. “It’s a mess,” he said of the conference (and, by implication, the whole business of interpreting quantum mechanics). The problem, he noted, arose because, for the most part, the different interpretations of quantum mechanics cannot be empirically distinguished from one another; philosophers and physicists favor one interpretation over another for aesthetic and philosophical—that is, subjective—reasons.
    • p. 88
  • I had barely sat down when he began to tell me... that science writers were "ignoramuses" and a "terrible breed" who invariably got things wrong: only scientists were really qualified to present their work to the masses. As time went on, I felt less offended, since it became clear that Gell-Mann held most of his scientific colleagues in contempt as well.
    • p. 212
  • One of the things that makes Gell-Mann so insufferable is that he is almost always right.
    • p. 215

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