Wednesday, 8 September 1999

John Maddox: What Remains to be Discovered (1997)

Edition: MacMillan, 1998
Review number: 327

John Maddox, having retired as editor of Nature, on of the most prestigious scientific journals, should be in a unique position to evaluate the state of scientific research at the end of the twentieth century and to look ahead to what we may see in the near future. He is not interested in developments in engineering and technology, but in work designed to improve our understanding of the universe around us. This contrasts with, say, the predictions made by Arthur C. Clarke at the beginning of 1999, which are full of technological items such as the date by which he would expect the establishment of a permanent manned base on the moon. The final chapter, which discusses natural and manmade disasters which might bring about the destruction of the human race, is the only place where technology and politics play much part; it makes the chapter seem rather separate from the rest of the book. The conclusion also acknowledges that applied science is important, even though it is not the main concern of the book.

Through the major part of the book, Maddox works through physics, biology, neurology and mathematics in that order, summarising the current position and looking at where profitable avenues for future research may lie. In his discussion, he takes an outsider's view of the particular area of science, sceptical of the enthusiasms which tend to dominate some specialities (the search for a 'theory of everything' in physics, for example) while taking a general pro-science and pro the standard models of science viewpoint. It is this calm appraisal which I felt to be most valuable in the book, and this is best represented in the chapters on physics. It enables him to say in his conclusion - and convince the reader that it is true - that "What stands out is that there is no field of science that is free from glaring ignorance, even contradiction."

I was rather surprised to read in the miniature biography on the inside of the book jacket that Maddox was originally a physicist before moving into journalism. The book gives me the impression that his main scientific interest is biological. (From reading the odd copy of Nature during his editorship, I had the same feeling about the journal.) This feeling is probably at least in part a consequence of my own different interests: physical sciences rather than biological.

This actually has an interesting connection with some of the things that Maddox has to say about the current state of the sciences. I have a tendency to appreciate the theoretical and philosophical, and this is today more the aspect presented by physics and mathematics than biology. Maddox criticises biologists, particularly those studying the mechanisms of the cell, for their dislike of predictive models and theories, describing much of their work as cataloguing rather than true science ("Oh look! This protein has this function in that structure! How fun!"). That is a sign of the comparative immaturity and difficulty of their subject - the cell and the human genome, both discussed at some length, are systems involving the interplay of thousands of mechanisms. (Maddox also points out that the main philosophical idea underpinning biology, the theory of evolution, is not predictive in the same way as, say, Einstein's theory of general relativity is. Given an organism and a change in the environment, it cannot tell you how that organism will adapt to meet that change.)

I felt that the section on mathematics betrayed least understanding, and I think that this is due to it being the subject I know best as well as being less congenial to Maddox.

No comments: