We can measure black holes, but we still can’t cure the common cold: Is There a Limit to Scientific Understanding?

Martin Rees in The Atlantic:

Lead_960Albert Einstein said that the “most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” He was right to be astonished. Human brains evolved to be adaptable, but our underlying neural architecture has barely changed since our ancestors roamed the savannah and coped with the challenges that life on it presented. It’s surely remarkable that these brains have allowed us to make sense of the quantum and the cosmos, notions far removed from the “commonsense,” everyday world in which we evolved. But I think science will hit the buffers at some point. There are two reasons why this might happen. The optimistic one is that we clean up and codify certain areas (such as atomic physics) to the point that there’s no more to say. A second, more worrying possibility is that we’ll reach the limits of what our brains can grasp. There might be concepts, crucial to a full understanding of physical reality, that we aren’t aware of, any more than a monkey comprehends Darwinism or meteorology. Some insights might have to await a post-human intelligence.

Scientific knowledge is actually surprisingly “patchy”—and the deepest mysteries often lie close by. Today, we can convincingly interpret measurements that reveal two black holes crashing together more than a billion light-years from Earth. Meanwhile, we’ve made little progress in treating the common cold, despite great leaps forward in epidemiology. The fact that we can be confident of arcane and remote cosmic phenomena, and flummoxed by everyday things, isn’t really as paradoxical as it looks. Astronomy is far simpler than the biological and human sciences. Black holes, although they seem exotic to us, are among the uncomplicated entities in nature. They can be described exactly by simple equations. So how do we define complexity? The question of how far science can go partly depends on the answer. Something made of only a few atoms can’t be very complicated. Big things need not be complicated either. Despite its vastness, a star is fairly simple—its core is so hot that complex molecules get torn apart and no chemicals can exist, so what’s left is basically an amorphous gas of atomic nuclei and electrons. Alternatively, consider a salt crystal, made up of sodium and chlorine atoms, packed together over and over again to make a repeating cubical lattice. If you take a big crystal and chop it up, there’s little change in structure until it breaks down to the scale of single atoms. Even if it’s huge, a block of salt couldn’t be called complex.

More here.