Skip to Content

News of Death, Greatly Exaggerated

What Remains To Be Discovered: Mapping the Secrets of the Universe
March 1, 1999

In his controversial book The End of Science, John Horgan suggested that the era of great scientific discoveries is over: Exploring the solar system or the human genome may keep us busy for a while, but our findings probably won’t require the invention of radical new theories on a par with those of Copernicus, Darwin or Einstein. After all, how much has happened in astronomy since the work of Edwin Hubble in the 1920s, or in genetics since James Watson and Francis Crick’s description of DNA in the 1950s, to fundamentally change the way we see the universe and our place in it?

When Horgan’s book came out in 1996, I was a reporter at Science magazine covering developmental biology, a discipline undergoing a stunning metamorphosis thanks to new techniques for manipulating genes. I knew better, therefore, than to swallow Horgan’s idea whole. I suspected that readers familiar with other fields would scoff just as loudly, but I lacked detailed evidence. Now John Maddox, one of “the last great scientific polymaths” (in the estimation of Richard Dawkins), has assembled that evidence into a captivating, highly readable book.

In many of his editorials in the prestigious research journal Nature, which he led for 23 years, Maddox played court cartographer, assembling scientists’ field reports into maps of the territories of the natural sciences that were being colonized successfully and those that remained terra incognita. In What Remains To Be Discovered, Maddox focuses on the empty parts of the map, those denoting woeful gaps in scientists’ understanding of such basic matters as the nature of the Big Bang and the connection between electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces and gravity. If many fields seem to be caught in the doldrums, with their last big organizing ideas having appeared more than a generation ago, it’s not a sign of the end of science, but merely a measure of the work left undone, Maddox chides.

“The truth is that the sheer success of science in the last half-millennium has engendered a corrosive impatience,” Maddox writes. “We too easily forget how recent are the empirical and theoretical foundations of present understanding. Prudence, or merely good manners, would dictate a seemly recognition that they may also be incomplete.” The news of the death of science has been greatly exaggerated.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.