Three Tiny Essays, #2: Madness, Mining and Magnitude

I.

A great many of the most influential scientists and mathematicians were outsiders, odd characters or holders of odd beliefs; Cavendish, Einstein, Dirac, Newton, Wallace, Crookes, and many others. The most correct way to describe this situation is that very many people who have been right have been odd, but being odd does not make one likely to be right.

Modern academic science, with its essentially bureaucratic structure, tends to focus on the truth of the second part of this statement and put the first part out of its mind, gravitating towards uniformity, patronage, and respectability. Cranks and crackpots follow the opposite pattern, naturally gravitating to the first part of the statement and forgetting the second, and so they wear their odd beliefs, intractable personalities, or outsider status on their sleeves as somehow evidence that whatever they believe or say is a suppressed or overlooked gem.

The creative and flexible middle, those who dared to think strange disturbing things (for all real strangeness is disturbing) but nevertheless retained just enough coherence and honesty to engage successfully with institutions and with the rest of humanity, seems today quite lost in that divide.

II.

Something seems to be underway in biology that mimics what has been underway in particle physics, namely a period of disillusionment brought on by diminishing returns on old brute-force experimental thinking.

The physicists felt convinced that, if smaller accelerators had shown them so much, building an even bigger accelerator would give them more leads, open up spectacular new theories. The LHC would be the key to a new understanding of the universe and a new epoch of theories (supersymmetry and strings).

The LHC was indeed built, ran successfully at full power–and found nothing beyond the Higgs, a particle predicted by existing theory back in the 1960s. This is the so-called “Nightmare Scenario”: no new physics. With this summer’s release of data from the LHC’s 2016 runs, which confirm these negative results to 6 standard deviations, the problem has become undeniable. As there will probably be no new accelerators larger and more powerful than the $10 billion LHC in the foreseeable future, more than ever theoretical physics finds its faith in expansion and intensification dashed.

Roughly analogously, biology has placed great hope in the continual expansion of throughput, particularly of sequencing power and data analytics. If only one can sequence more millions of base-pairs per hour, can sequence more species simultaneously, can store them by the terabyte in ever growing, better curated data banks and comb them with enough types of algorithms and statistical tests using ever larger amounts of processing power, we surely must eventually find ourselves the masters (and understanders) of life. Moreover, we surely must at last become able to calculate the character of an individual directly from their genomic makeup, just as we make any other calculation. Not only medical problems, but ultimately social and psychological problems as well, could thereby become controllable and tractable.

Yet it seems likely that what biologists will find from such approaches, if they find much of anything reproducible at all, is not hard principles of life but effects that are squishy–either so subject to vast change over the history of the organism and so dependent on the organism’s own choices that stable definitions become impossible, or so hugely multivariate that the curse of dimensionality makes predictive distinctions completely impractical at any level of precision that would be useful. Much as string theory and the faith in ever-larger accelerators has led physics into a seeming blind alley, the belief in sheer throughput and processing as the solution to life and human individuality seems likely to turn out, by and large, to have brought us little closer to understanding ourselves (if not farther from it). Size and complexity cannot forever compensate the limitations of an underlying conception.

III.

Perhaps it is best to look at discovery and invention in terms of the metaphors that preside during their appearance. When discoveries are abundant and expected, a “mining” mentality obtains. When they are rare, a “miracle” mentality is more typical. Put another way, the sheer concentration of fundamental scientific and technological discoveries and upheavals in the 19th and 20th centuries kept us from appreciating their singular, miraculous quality; we allowed ourselves to think they were being mined, hence that all that was needed was to keep digging diligently and new ones would continue appearing indefinitely.

On the other hand, even mining cannot go on forever in the real world; therefore, in a curious irony, the modern determination to see these shattering discoveries as merely the first products of a mining operation had to be shored up by smuggling in a new form of the miraculous, to wit: the limitless insight and innovative power of the human mind. Thanks to its unique and now scientifically-mediated power to discern the absolute essence of reality, we assured ourselves that humanity would be able to mine the vein of fundamentally transformational discoveries indefinitely, priming further expansion by artfully changing tack (or frack?) whenever scarcity or limitation reared their heads.

Now we begin to realize that the mining process has slowed, that even our scientifically-adjusted vision is not without serious glares and aberrations, and above all, that we have staked our future as a civilization on achieving an ongoing succession of ever-greater miracles. “It’s a near miracle that disaster has been avoided this far”, observes Chomsky, “and miracles do not go on forever”.

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