Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The End of Discovery

This review is published in the latest Fortean Times (issue 268).

The End of Discovery
Russell Stannard
Oxford University Press, 2010
Hb, 232pp, illos, £14.99, ISBN 978-0-19-958524-3

This is a rather curious book from Russell Stannard, former head of physics and astronomy at the Open University and writer of the popular 'Uncle Albert' childrens' books. Superficially, it's a very accessible overview of some fundamental areas of cosmology, high energy physics and quantum mechanics, emphasising the limits of knowledge in these areas.

Stannard is careful to distinguish his book from John Horgan's similarly-titled 'The End of Science' (Broadway Books, 1996), which argued that there were no more big discoveries to be made. Rather, his argument is that while there may be many fundamental discoveries still to come, the extent of the knowledge accessible to science is inevitably limited.

There's several reasons for this. Some are purely pragmatic, such as the apparent impossibility of building particle accelerators large enough to achieve the energies that nuclear physicists would like to reach. There's also the apparent impossibility of proving or disproving string theory or the different interpretations of quantum mechanics. And, ultimately, some aspects of the workings of the universe may just be beyond our limited comprehension.

Only on occasion is one reminded of Arthur C Clarke's dictum about elderly scientists who say something is impossible.

But there is something more going on with this book. Stannard is also a committed Christian, winner of the Templeton Project Trust Award for 'significant contributions to the field of spiritual values', and author of such books as 'The God Experiment: Can Science Prove the Existence of God?' and 'Science and the Renewal Of Belief'. It's this side of his interests that provides the subtext to the book, in what seems a slightly disingenuous fashion.

There's only the odd explicit diversion into theology. Philo and St Augustine appear, by way of Kant, in a section on the inability to say what mass or electric charge actually is. And there's a curious characterisation of the late Fred Hoyle as a 'one-time atheist'. If Hoyle did later adopt any kind of religious belief, it's unremarked by his several biographers.

Stannard's introduction states that his book is opposed to the claim that 'science is the only route to knowledge' - 'While seeking to promote an appreciation for the achievements of science, it is also intended to engender an even greater sense of awe when faced with the mystery of existence.'

The book ends with an attack on claims for a potential 'Theory of Everything', on the grounds that it could not account for 'consciousness, free will, aesthetics, morals, the spiritual'. Of course, no one's every seriously claimed that any hypothetical ToE could or would address such areas of metaphysics or psychology. And Stannard's inclusion of 'the spiritual' is rather begging the question.

As the aforementioned Hoyle often remarked, Western religion commonly holds that science is incapable of explaining the universe (Hoyle preferred to stand alongside the ancient Greeks in believing there was an ultimate discoverable order). Stannard's book lands squarely in this tradition - with the novel twist that this argument for a God of the gaps is never quite made explicit. One can't help but be reminded of the kind of lacunae that appear when Creationists use the language of 'Intelligent Design'.

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