There are 7 Edges of Science We’ll Never Surpass, Oxford Mathematician States
Marcus du Sautoy says that all of the greatest discoveries are behind us. Others are not so sure.
We still hold onto Enlightenment ideals such as, that all problems can be solved with the use of the intellect, logic, mathematics, and the scientific method. As a result, millions across the world have been lifted out of poverty, saved through medical science, fed through advances in agriculture, and are connected like never before, through computers and communication technology. Despite all these innovations, Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy in his latest book, argues we may be reaching science’s limit on a number of different fronts.
Science and mathematics have, at least for now, already reached certain limits. Whether we’ll ever be able to overcome or accommodate them, no one really knows. In quantum mechanics there is The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that you can measure a particle for location or momentum but not both. Why has been an utter mystery, but not without hypotheticals. One includes the theory of the multiverse—that these are two phases of the same particle, each residing simultaneously in two different universes.
General relativity also has a limit, the speed of light. Nothing can travel faster than it. Then there’s physics in general. There are inconsistencies between general relativity and quantum mechanics which have yet to be rectified, before we can have a unified theory of the universe or a “theory of everything,” what’s considered the field's “holy grail.” Some believe String Theory might hold the answer. But there are so many versions of it and no way to test them.
Einstein caused a great paradigm shift in physics. Will we see the next great leap in the 21st century? Getty Images.
Limits were reached not in just physics, but logic and mathematics too. Consider Gödel’s Theorem. Here, you cannot prove certain items true even though all implications point to them being true. Most things we can plug into mathematical models get a yes or no answer. But even the most advanced computer will have questions it cannot resolve, statements which it cannot evaluate as true or false. Gödel’s Theorem is confusing, even for experts. But what’s certain is that assertions will always exist.
In 1996 science journalist John Horgan published The End of Science, which triggered intense debate. Horgan argued that there would be "no more great revelations or revolutions, but only incremental, diminishing returns.” We’ve seen technology develop at a fantastic rate.
Yet, real earthshattering scientific breakthroughs in our understanding of nature and the universe are becoming more expensive and harder to come by. Horgan wrote in a follow-up, a decade later that “scientists are unlikely to discover anything surpassing the Big Bang, quantum mechanics, relativity, natural selection, or genetics.”
Of course there are still fundamental questions left unsolved, like where did the universe come from and what happened before the Big Bang? This begs the question, Will there be mysteries that humanity will never solve? In his new book: The Great Unknown: Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science, Marcus Du Sautoy takes Horgan’s claims a step further. He outlines seven “edges” which we may push against, but never reach past.
Is there an edge to the universe or in our understanding of it? Pixababy.
Consider whether the universe is truly infinite. Since light can only travel so far so fast, we may never be able to know, because it’ll take light from outside of the universe too long to reach us. Time is another one. Newton considered time an absolute.
Then Einstein came along and found out that it is actually related to things like velocity and gravity. Today, physicists wonder if time is a substance, a dimension, or what’s being called emergent phenomena—a result of our interaction with objects, which we interpret as a flowing past?
Consciousness is yet another edge. Will we ever know where it’s located in the brain? Yet another is, if we’ll ever predict the future. We still can’t say for certain what number a roll of the dice will land. According to Du Sautoy, we never will.
There seems to be an agreement that the really dramatic breakthroughs have stopped coming, at least for the time being. One piece of the puzzle may be the difficulty of acquiring the enormous funding necessary to make such paradigm shifts in our understanding possible.
Despite this, there seems to be two camps among scientists, those who believe we will reach certain limits permanently, and those who trust we never will. For instance, physicists at the end of the 19th century thought they had all there was to know about, what was called general physics, in hand. Then came quantum mechanics and general relativity, each of which completely changed the entire field.
There could be light at the end of the tunnel, with a little help from AI. Pixababy.
What’s different now is that we have AI, which, once it reaches a certain level of sophistication, could help propel science forward in never before recognized directions. Consider an AI program developed at Cornell University called Eureka, which observes elements of natural phenomenon and spits out equations about them. The program has several times discovered aspects of things, say cell operations in biology, for instance, that were beforehand unrecognized. Scientists are still puzzling over some of its discoveries.
It may be that AI will eventually help fill in the gaps in human approaches and understanding and thus help us push past the boundaries we’ve found ourselves coming up against. Whether we can merely partner with them or if we’ll have to integrate our brains with computers, is currently being debated.
To hear what Columbia University philosophy professor David Albert has to say on the subject, click here:
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Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.
- The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
- Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
- These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.
Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.
A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.
Rethinking humanity's origin story
The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.
David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.
The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.
Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"
He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.
"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."
Migrating out of Africa
In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.
Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.
The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.
The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.
Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.
Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.
Did we head east or south of Eden?
Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.
Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.
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