SCIENCE: UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: Forget all that you know

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"I BRING YOU new ideas," Einstein wrote in a letter at the time when he was developing his theories on relativity. How exciting that phrase "new ideas" still sounds to us now. But there is, allegedly, nothing new under the sun - the historian and the literary expert point to eternal themes and patterns governing all human behaviour that are revisited across a myriad seemingly individual events or novel creations.

John Horgan, a one-time reporter for Scientific American, claims to have "been there" for science (and to have got the T-shirt already). In his book, The End of Science, he propounds the gloomy thesis that there is nothing new left to find out. As one might imagine, this met vigorous opposition among the scientific community. After all, as we beaver away at our little problems, it seems that the exercise never ends: as soon as a particular problem is solved, like the beheading of the hydra, so seven further problems spring up in its place. In my own field, neuroscience, the diverse processes, properties and peculiarities of the brain are becoming unveiled at an astonishing pace that currently shows no let-up. News to me then, that we are at the end of the road.

But that is not what Horgan meant. In jeopardy, it seems, is the type of science that provides truly different insights. "Normal" science was the phrase used by Thomas Kuhn in his masterly Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962. He defined the problem to be the attitude of scientists: any experiment conducted, he said, was founded on a theory, a "paradigm", of pre-existing assumptions (rather like a dinner party where there are always unwritten expectations about the conduct of host and guests). Scientists work from premises so deeply ingrained that we are unconscious of them. And just as we might need to have dinner, say, with a Saudi sheik in a desert tent in order to re-recognise the rules constraining our own behaviour over the plonk and candles, so we need to do the same in science. Kuhn termed this shake-up of existing assumptions "the paradigm shift", a new way of looking at a process.

The subject of investigation itself need not be new, but the shift in attitude should be dramatic. Sadly, however, paradigm shifts are out of fashion nowadays because they cannot be anticipated and planned out, and are usually founded on an intuitive leap of imagination. Scientists themselves are becoming, as a constituency, a far cry from the intellectual buccaneers of old, the flamboyant eccentrics making ends meet in makeshift laboratories.

Modern scientists have at their disposal flashy labs and a bewildering array of high-tech buttons, bells and whistles, but the original spirit of enquiry is being suffocated by academic auditing, increased teaching demands, silly amounts of committee work and a pervasive cultural anxiety about anything unorthodox, which in turn rocks the boat of the mandarins reviewing both potential publications and grant proposals. Research itself is in danger of being reduced to a bureaucratic commodity, as opposed to the quicksilver process that enabled the imagination of previous generations to engage the outside world. We need to go back to our scientific roots for truly new ideas, and to prove Horgan wrong.