The past two days I’ve been at a conference here in Lisbon organized by the Gulbenkian Foundation on the ostensible topic of Is Science Near Its Limits? The Gulbenkian is probably the most well-known and best-funded cultural organization in Portugal, and it includes a world-famous museum housing the wonderful art collection of its founder, Calouste Gulbenkian, who made his fortune in the oil business early during the last century.
The conference was extremely well-run and well-attended, filling a large lecture hall where there was simultaneous translation of the talks into Portuguese. It was organized by literary critic, writer and polymath George Steiner, who gave the introductory talk. I hadn’t known that Steiner had originally started out studying mathematics, but was discouraged from pursuing a career in the subject at the University of Chicago by Irving Kaplansky, which led to his turning to the study of literature and philosophy. Steiner had quite a lot to say provocative to scientists, including questioning whether they had been able to justify to the public the large sums of money being spent on the LHC, and characterizing the lack of testability of string theory as strong evidence that science had hit a limit beyond which it could not progress.
On the whole the rest of the speakers actually didn’t have much to say about limits of science, taking the standard view of most scientists that their own field had a bright future, with no limits in sight. The final talk of the conference did return to the limits issue, with John Horgan giving an uncompromising defense of the thesis of his 1996 book The End of Science (although he did allow that possible advances in neuroscience such as the decoding of a neural code, could be as revolutionary as previous advances). While the scientists in the audience took Steiner’s attacks in stride, partly because he was our host, they were less charmed by Horgan, who got a rather hostile reaction from many of them. I hope he’ll write about his point of view on the conference at his blog, or discuss it in one of his Bloggingheads discussions with George Johnson.
I was one of the few other speakers discussing the question of limits, with my talk emphasizing that particle physics is now in a new, different environment than that of the past, one in which progress, even revolutionary progress, is possible, but much more difficult. A written version of my talk is available here. I was paired with string theorist Dieter Lust, who gave a presentation of the case for string theory unification and the Landscape. We were introduced by Gustavo Calstelo Branco of the IST, who emphasized recent advances in our understanding of neutrinos. Also speaking in another session was Luis Alvarez-Gaume of CERN, who gave a very upbeat talk on the prospects for particle physics, taking the point of view on string theory that, like any idea, string theorists will give up on it if it doesn’t work out. He already sees a diminishment of interest in string theory among particle physicists, with people moving instead towards subjects that promise some sort of interaction with experimental data. The three of us were brought together later for an interesting small and very lively discussion of the issues surrounding string theory and recent media attention to it. This was taped, and may appear in some form or other in the future.
Update: There’s an entertaining conversation between John Horgan and George Johnson about the Lisbon conference now up at Bloggingheads.