Science and Its Limits

The outstanding physics theoretician Max Tegmark of MIT tells the story of how Ernest Rutherford’s 1933 prediction about atomic energy (i.e., that is was “moonshine”)—was refuted before 24 hours had passed when Szilard (the Hungarian genius) realized that a nuclear chain reaction could be set in motion getting around Rutherford’s pessimistic prediction of only a few hours before:

“In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. Drizzling rain would begin again in early afternoon. When Szilard told the story later he never mentioned his destination that morning. He may have had none; he often walked to think. In any case another destination intervened. The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woes, the shape of things to come…”

(Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb)

This Tegmark/Szilard “refutation” of Rutherford in our times reminds one of MIT’s AI pioneer, Prof. Marvin Minsky’s limitless and perhaps too rosy predictions for AI and human intelligence in the sixties and seventies.

A student pursuing education has to live with the paradox and puzzle that unpredicted surprises and leaps do occur in the world of science and they are astonishing. It is true at the same time, that the realm of science (i.e., “how” questions) cannot address “why” questions. The question “how was I born?” cannot replace “why was I born?”

Both of these questions have possible answers at various levels and are subject to hierarchies.

Steven Jay Gould, the late Harvard biologist, had a felicitous phrase, “separate magisteria” (i.e., separate realms or domains) to describe this gap between the pursuit of personal meaning (human quest) and the pursuit of (tentative) accuracy (scientific quest).