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Wednesday
Jun222011

Has Science Lost its Exponent?

All right, sue me, this piece, "The Big Crunch" by Dr. David Goodstein (Caltech), was written in 1994. In 1994, I was nine years old, and I spent lots of free time with an Encarta CD-ROM because there was hardly an internet.

However, hear out this guy's so-last-century thoughts. He wrote an incendiary article about how science ceased its exponential growth in the 1970s, its "Golden Age." The science analogy--that the universe grew exponentially after the Big Bang, but that it will probably stop that nonsense sometime and crash back in on itself in a "big crunch"--has since been proven kind of, you know, wrong, but just because the metaphor is invalid doesn't mean the philosophy is too.

Much has been written, of late, about the false perception that America is not producing enough scientists. The articles point out that there are not nearly
enough research/teaching jobs for all the people who get PhDs. We're already grooming way more scientists than our academic system can support, which is why people leave and go into industry, finance, waitressing, crying themselves to sleep, etc. (Here is a personal take on the matter, and here is a more general take). As Goodstein says

The period 1950-1970 was a true golden age for American science. Young Ph.D's could choose among excellent jobs, and anyone with a decent scientific idea could be sure of getting funds to pursue it...[Now,] the average American professor in a research university turns out about 15 Ph.D students in the course of a career. In a stable, steady-state world of science, only one of those 15 can go on to become another professor in a research university. In a steady-state world, it is mathematically obvious that the professor's only reproductive role is to produce one professor for the next generation. But the American Ph.D is basically training to become a research professor. It didn't take long for American students to catch on to what was happening.  

Anyway, Goodstein talks more about this problem, its inception, and the reasons it took us so long to notice (so long, in fact, that most people outside of academic science world still haven't noticed). This is one of his primary points in the "science has stopped growing like it was growing before" vein, which flows into the heart of the argument: that one day science may stop growing altogether.

He splits his evidence for the scientific Big Crunch into a few parts:

  1. Non-exponential growth of journals
  2. Non-exponential growth of PhDs
  3. Way non-exponential growth of jobs for those who do get PhDs
  4. Non-exponential growth of funding
  5. In-the-tank scientific literacy in the general population
He then goes on to talk about problems with scientific education and the peer-review process before moving on to bold conclusion-type statements such as


The frontiers of science have moved far from the experience of ordinary persons. Unfortunately, we have never developed a way to bring people along as informed tourists of the vast terrain we have conquered, without training them to become professional explorers. If it turns out to be impossible to do that, the people may decide that the technological trinkets we send back from the frontier are not enough to justify supporting the cost of the expedition. If that happens, science will not merely stop expanding, it will die.

So my question to you is this: Do you buy it? How much of it do you buy? If you think science is broke[n], do you think it can be fixed?

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References (6)

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    Wonderful Web site, Maintain the excellent job. With thanks!
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    Has Science Lost its Exponent? - Blog - Smaller Questions
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    Has Science Lost its Exponent? - Blog - Smaller Questions
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    Response: Neundenker
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    Has Science Lost its Exponent? - Blog - Smaller Questions
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    Science has been developing along with the years. Every day one new discovery is being made. This really makes me more impressive. All scientists are working hard globally to achieve the success in inventions. But it got slowed down now a day, perhaps i believe it lost its exponent.

Reader Comments (3)

Someone stole their witty Encarta comment from a recent popular science comic-
http://www.xkcd.com/911/

June 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Actually, you know what, I didn't read the alt-text on that particular comic till just now.

June 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Scoles

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