The Future of Science, and the Universe

In the program for a lecture series at the New York Public Library I saw one vision of the future: Raymond Loewy’s conception of an airliner, as exhibited at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.1 I was there at the 1939 World’s Fair, but I don’t remember Raymond Loewy’s design. I was very young. What I best remember are the fountains lit up by colored lights. Also, I remember that a dairy company was giving out tiny free ice cream cones. With the Depression still going on, free ice cream was a memorable experience. Whatever predictions of future technology were made at the World’s Fair did not leave much of an impression on me.

It was no great loss. Aside perhaps from the vision of modern superhighways in the General Motors pavilion, the World’s Fair did not score great successes in its predictions of future technology. The illustration of Loewy’s design for an airliner of the future doesn’t look at all like passenger aircraft today. It shows eight engines, and a fuselage resembling a diesel locomotive. I didn’t know it in 1939, but Raymond Loewy had in fact designed diesel locomotives for the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1930s, giving them a futuristic “streamlined” look without actually paying much attention to principles of aerodynamics. He could get away with this with diesel locomotives, but not with airplanes. But predicting future technology is very difficult even if you don’t ignore the laws of physics. You might better spend your time admiring fountains of colored water.

My subject here is not the future of technology or other applications of science, but the future of science itself. Here we can make a prediction with fair confidence—that sooner or later we shall discover the physical principles that govern all natural phenomena.

We already have a theory that encompasses all the particles out of which we and our surroundings are made, and, except for gravitation, all the forces that act on them. This theory, known as the Standard Model, is expressed in the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics, which seems to be a universal basis for the laws of physics. But this theory has too many arbitrary elements, like the masses that have to be assigned to the various elementary particles. We also have a theory of gravitation—the General Theory of Relativity—which predated quantum mechanics. This theory can even be interpreted quantum mechanically. The trouble is that our present quantum theory of gravitation only provides approximations whose validity is limited to processes at low energies and large distances. What we do not yet have is a quantum mechanical theory of unlimited validity that encompasses all particles and forces. We are like the plebeians of Rome at the time when the Twelve Tables were still kept secret, not knowing the laws by which we are governed. More specifically, as I will come to later, our ignorance of the final laws of nature makes us uncertain in our predictions of the future of the universe.

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