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As a science journalist, I’ve been to countless science conferences over the years where I’d hear about the latest discoveries or a plug for a new telescope or particle accelerator destined to yield fresh insights into the workings of nature. But last week I found myself in a small but elegant auditorium at Dartmouth College for a different kind of meeting. Scientists and philosophers had gathered not to celebrate research accomplishments but to argue that science itself is inadequate. As successful as it has undeniably been, they say it cannot provide all the answers we seek. 

 

Now, make no mistake—they admit there is a certain kind of science that works incredibly well, when a little portion of the universe is cordoned off for study, with the scientist positioned outside of the carefully defined region under investigation. Galileo is usually credited with this extraordinary intellectual breakthrough, one that is often said to have paved the way for modern science. His observations of a swinging pendulum, and of balls rolling down inclined planes, are classic examples.

 

But what happens when we cannot draw a clear line between the observer and the observed? This, according to Dartmouth physicist Marcelo Gleiser and some of his colleagues, is a serious problem. And because these cases concern some of the most important unanswered questions in physics, they potentially undermine the idea that science can explain “everything.” Gleiser laid out this argument earlier this year in a provocative essay in Aeon, co-authored with astrophysicist Adam Frank of the University of Rochester and philosopher Evan Thompson of the University of British Columbia; and it was the focus of the two-day workshop that Gleiser organized, titled “The Blind Spot: Experience, Science, and the Search for ‘Truth’,” held at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire, on April 22 and 23. “Everything we do in science is conditioned by the way we look at the world,” Gleiser says. “And the way we look at the world is necessarily limited.”

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Category: Science