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Scientific papers often begin by posing a paradox, even if it is one that had not previously seemed particularly disturbing. Having posed the paradox, the author then proceeds to resolve it. At first glance, we don't seem to make much progress that way. A paradox that was previously unnoticed is now no longer unexplained. However, such exercises can sometimes be useful. For example, Albert Einstein's famous 1905 paper introducing the theory of relativity was very much of this form. He began by pointing out that when a magnet induces an electric current in a loop of wire, we attribute that effect to entirely different causes depending on whether the magnet or the loop of wire is in motion. Finding this paradox intolerable, he proceeded to resolve it, giving new meanings to time and space along the way.
Today, with my customary modesty, I would like to follow in Albert's bicycle tracks and begin this talk by posing a paradox. The paradox is that we, here in the United States today, have the finest scientists in the world, and we also have the worst science education in the world, or at least in the industrialized world. There seems to be little doubt that both of these seemingly contradictory observations are true. American scientists, trained in American graduate schools produced more Nobel Prizes, more scientific citations, more of just about anything you care to measure than any other country in the world; maybe more than the rest of the world combined. Yet, students in American schools consistently rank at the bottom of all those from advanced nations in tests of scientific knowledge, and furthermore roughly 95 percent of the American public is consistently found to be scientifically illiterate by any rational standard. How can we possibly have arrived at such a result? How can our miserable system of education have produced such a brilliant community of scientists? I would like to refer to this situation as The Paradox of the Scientific Elites and the Scientific Illiterates.
In my view, these two seemingly contradictory observations are both true, and they are closely related to one another. We have created a kind of feudal aristocracy in American science, where a privileged few hold court, while the toiling masses huddle in darkness, metaphorically speaking, of course. However, I also think inexorable historic forces are at work that have already begun to bring those conditions to an end. Not that light will be brought to the masses necessarily, but that our days at court are clearly numbered. To understand all this, and before we get any more deeply mired in dubious metaphors, it may help to go back to the beginning. I mean, really The Beginning.
In modern Cosmology, the accepted theory of the beginning of the universe goes something like this: At a certain instant around 18 billion years ago, the universe was created in a cataclysmic event called The Big Bang. It has been expanding uniformly ever since. What we do not know, however, is whether the density of matter in the universe is great enough to reverse that expansion eventually, causing the universe to slow down, come to a stop, and then finally fall back upon itself If that does happen, the cosmologists are prepared with a name for the final cataclysmic moment when the universe ends. It will be known as The Big Crunch.
Today I would like to offer you a somewhat analogous theory of the history of science. According to this theory, science began in a cataclysmic event sometime around the year 1700 (the publication of Newton's Principia in 1687 is a good candidate for the actual event). It then proceeded to expand at a smooth, continuous exponential rate for nearly 300 years. Unlike the universe, however, science did not expand into nothing at all. Instead, the expansion must come to an end when science reaches the natural limits imposed on it by the system it was born into, which is called The Human Race.
I don't mean that scientific knowledge is limited by the human race; in fact, I don't think scientific knowledge is limited at all, and I hope that will go on expanding forever. What I'm talking about here is what you might call the profession of science, or the business of science. It is my opinion that the size of the scientific enterprise, which began its explosive expansion around 1700, has now begun to reach the limits imposed on it by the size of the human race. Thus, the expansion of science is now in the process of ending, not in a Big Crunch, but in something much more like a whimper, that may or may not leave some residue of science still existing when it is all over. I think that the beginning of the end of the exponential expansion era of science occurred, in the United States at least, around the year 1970. Most people, scientists and otherwise, are unaware that it is coming to an end (in fact, they probably never knew it existed) and are still trying to maintain a social structure of science (by which I mean research, education, funding, institutions and so on) that is based on the unexamined assumption that the future will be just like the pas.t. Since I believe that to be impossible, we have some very interesting times ahead of us. I would like to tell you today why I believe all this, and what we might try to do about it.
Figure 2 is borrowed from a book called Little Science, Big Science by Derek de Solla Price. Price may be identified as the Edwin Hubble of the expansion of science (Hubble discovered the expansion of the Universe). The figure, a plot of the number of scientific journals founded, world wide, as …