Cowen: Is progress in science slowing down right now?
Boyden: That’s a good question. I think what’s happening is we’re tackling bigger problems. Let me explain what that means.
In physics, there’s a small number of building blocks, like protons and electrons, and a small number of ways they interact, like electromagnetism and so forth. Chemistry – there’s more stuff. There’s a hundred-odd things in the periodic table, although maybe there’s only 30 to 50 that you actually have to work with if you’re trying to make something actually happen. Again, there’s a small number of bonds: covalent and ionic and so forth.
I think the problem right now is that a lot of the scientific questions we’re wrestling with, whether it’s in biology and medicine – but I’m not an expert in this; you know more about some of these things than I do – but in economics and education and so forth, it also seems like – from my distant view – some of these problems relate to this idea that there’s a lot of different building blocks and a lot of ways they interact.
In biology, we have what, 30,000 genes in the human genome, and while we know their sequence, for the most part, we have no idea how these gene products interact with each other, and how they’re architected into cells and tissues and organs, and how those go wrong. The problem is this combinatorial explosion of possibilities is so staggeringly huge that a lot of what we try will fail.
What do we do about it? One point of view is, “Well, if we had better tools, and we could map those building blocks and those interactions, maybe we could reduce the risk of biomedical science.” Again, it’s not my field. You know more about this than I do. I’d love to hear your opinion. But in economics and in other fields, it also seems like people are trying to make better maps of things and how they interact.
That’s one idea... Progress might seem to be slower because the problems are so hard. But with better tools, maybe we can level the playing field and make 21st-century sciences more tractable, in the same way that 20th-century sciences gave us lasers and computers and the internet.
There’s always this question of why is the universe understandable in the first place, and maybe now we’re entering the realm of complexity where things are less understandable. But again, we have to accept reality for what it is.