Thursday, September 3, 2015

The horizon effect

We are well aware of the horizon effect: as we walk towards the horizon, the horizon gets further away. In science sometimes this effect seems to apply. Let us look at a few examples:
Mycoplasma genitalium genetic map
  • Synthetic biology: In 1960, producing living cells in the laboratory was predicted to be feasible by 1970. In 2015, Craig Venter (1) sees it feasible soon, perhaps by 2030. It is true that we have come very far, that great strides have been made, but the ultimate goal seems to be always at the same distance, or even a little further away. Moreover, the origin of life remains a mystery. The simplest being able to live independently (Mycoplasma genitalium) is very complicated, light-years away from the hypothetical first living being.

  • The fight against cancer: Here too, there have been important advances. Suffering from cancer is no longer equivalent to a death sentence. Many patients can be cured. But the final triumph over this disease, which the media and some scientists often advertise as imminent, moves away as time passes. Just look at the statistics and the newspaper obituaries to see that many people are still dying of cancer, sometimes at quite an early age.
    Laser confinement fusion
  • Nuclear fusion energy: In 1960 Arthur Clarke predicted that this way of obtaining energy would be available by 1980. In 1980, significant progress made in Tokamak reactors and by means of laser confinement moved some scientists to predict that it would be available by the year 2000. Today no one bothers to predict a date: nuclear fusion is proving much more difficult to control than previously thought.
  • Artificial intelligence: By this term I mean, not what is usually called by this name (programmed systems capable of making decisions), but artificial beings comparable to humans in intelligence and with a capacity for self-consciousness. In 1956, when the term was invented, it was predicted that artificial intelligence would be reached in just over ten years. In 1990, Ray Kurzweil (2) said again that it would be at our reach in ten years. In 1999, the same author (3) estimated that perhaps it would be feasible by 2010. Currently he is predicting it by 2030 or 2035.
  • The theory of everything: In the late nineteenth century it became fashionable to say that physics had already discovered everything that could be discovered. There were just two small unexplained phenomena: the negative result of the Michelson-Morley experiment and the black body radiation. As soon as these two problems would be solved, physics would be closed forever. Between 1890 and 1905, the discovery of radioactivity, quantum theory and the theory of relativity revolutionized physics and opened totally new fields of research. By 1990, it was again said that we were about to know everything: with just a small boost (string theory seemed very promising), physics would have explained all. Today, with the possible discovery of dark matter and energy (we still don’t know what they may be) and the failure of string theory, the theory of everything seems to have receded. Moreover, there are reasons to think that it may be impossible to formulate such a theory.
In the above examples, the horizon effect is unmistakable. This does not mean that we will never be able to solve these problems, but we should be more careful whenever some small progress is made. If I had to take chances and make a prediction, I would say that, if these problems have a solution, I don’t think it very likely that it will be found during the twenty-first century. On the other hand, perhaps our scientific civilization won’t endure beyond this century. But that is another story.

(1)   Craig Venter, Life at the speed of Light, 2015.
(2)   Ray Kurzweil, The age of intelligent machines, 1990.
(3)   Ray Kurzweil, The age of spiritual machines, 1999.

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Manuel Alfonseca


  1. Interesting. I once saw a comedian on Youtube that said, "People say science doesn't know everything. Science knows it doesn't know everything. Otherwise, it would stop." Even if these "horizon effect" topics are never reached, important research springs up on the path towards it.

    1. Yes, that's true. What I'm criticizing is the eagerness of the media (and some scientists) to present as immediate results that aren't there, and won't be in a long time. This can also be harmful for science, making people hope too much and then become disillusioned.