The limiting factor of scientific advancement, or "why death really sucks"

30 Jun 2006

My thoughts on a major (one might say "THE") limiting factor of scientific advancement.
I just finished a book titled The Theory of Almost Everything : The Standard Model, the Unsung Triumph of Modern Physics. It's a great read if you're interested in how modern physics has arrived at its current state. It details the areas in which physicists are currently working to expand their knowledge of the universe. It even talks a little bit about why it all matters - although not so much on that as I'd have liked.

As the book progressed, the author would give a brief history of each new discovery and how the discovery was based on or related to or inspired by previous work by other scientists. Towards the end of the book he quotes Sir Isaac Newton who says, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants". How much further have we seen today than in his day? And it's all because of incremental advances based on what came before.

[An aside: Stephen Hawking has written a book titled On the Shoulders of Giants that's also an excellent read and details how our current scientific knowledge has benefitted by key scientists of the past]

I imagine that if a brilliant scientist from our day were to go back a few hundred years and find a brilliant scientist from that era and attempt to explain to him the latest theories of subatomic particles, relativity, quantum electrodynamic fluctuations, strings, dark matter, dark energy, glueballs, gluons, quarks, spin, chaos, improbability, (shall i go on?) ... that you'd get some pretty strange looks. Even if he wanted to believe you, he would have absolutely no framework or reference point from which to understand what you were talking about.

[Another aside: Think Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - On the bridge of the Bird of Prey upon their departure from Vulcan for Earth, McCoy entreats Spock to enter into a conversation about "life, death, life, things of that nature" now that Spock has died and essentially been resurrected. Spock rebuffs McCoy, saying that they could not have a conversation on this matter since they had no common frame of reference. In other words, Spock cannot talk with McCoy about dying and then living again since McCoy has also not died and then lived again. source: wikipedia]

You would have to spend years ... decades perhaps ... teaching him fundamental principles, starting from what he knows and working forward. It wouldn't take as long as going from scratch, because you'd know all the answers and pitfalls to avoid in advance, but it would still take a considerable time. And then, just as he catches on ... oops - old age kicks in and he (or you) die off. That sucks ...

Nobody can know all the deep facets of all the areas of science. There are a small handful of people in any given field that are truly at the forefront. They spend their entire lives getting there; perfecting their knowledge, pushing the boundaries in that field. They do it at the cost of focusing on anything else. Knowledge becomes fragmented.

Now suppose someone from the future came to visit us. Maybe they're from a million years in the future. How long would it take them to explain to us all the principles that would lead us from where we are to where they are? Would it even be possible to learn in a lifetime? Maybe there's a limit to how far we can advance that's determined by how long we can live. No matter how much we can abstract the details in order to build grander and grander theories, eventually the learning curve will be so high in an area that 80 or a 100 or even 150 years just isn't enough to come up to speed and make any useful contribution to the field.

These thoughts inspired by the book, along with a conversation I had with a fellow employee a few weeks ago bring me to my point. A leader at the forefront of their field has maybe 20-30 years where they're at the top of their game and really advancing science. What if, instead, the average lifetime of a human was bumped up to 500 years, or a thousand years? What if we could somehow live forever? Maybe we increase the rate at which we can think by augmenting our intelligence (Intelligence Augmentation - IA - it's a real term; look it up). Maybe we are replaced by superintelligent AI (i.e. the machines take over). Maybe we morph into the machines naturally. Maybe we discover a miracle drug that stops disease and decay in our cells so we live as humans forever. Maybe God will come and save the world and resurrect everyone in a perfect body that never dies.

In any case, if humans began living longer (or even forever - perhaps even thinking faster), the learning curve of any discipline could be overcome, no matter how steep or long to reach the top. Given enough time you could master any subject and then begin to advance it. Of course, those who are born a thousand years behind you wouldn't have any prayer of ever catching up. But that's ok - they can specialize in something else. There's plenty of knowledge to go around. Maybe, if we're lucky, we'll be able (as Ray Kurzweil succinctly put it) to Live Long Enough to Live Forever.