23 January 2015

The End of the Road, Part the Second

It was some time ago, in fact my SlickEdit told me I had already a file with the title (I had forgotten, and fortunately tried the same title. phew.), that "The End of the Road" appeared in these endeavors. And the last offering made reference to the subject with the words, "we humans are on the ever flattening asymptote of knowledge of the real world". Both pieces sprang from some part of the lower brain stem of memory. I always suspected that some famous writer had figured it out. But, try as I might, I never found patient zero, so to speak.

Well, I tried again a few minutes ago, and there it was, right at the top of the search list. Damn. That's patient zero from the point of view of nowadays innterTubes. The piece is a ten year retrospective of his book, "The End of Science". I recall reading neither before typing the first End of the Road piece. The book was the better part of two decades ago, so it is possible that I've read it. If so, lost to the bowels of that lower brain stem.

The arguments in his 10 year article are completely in line with my conclusion. For the quants out there, it matters for this reason. Economic evolution, particularly in the USofA in the 19th century through WWII, was built on resource discovery, exploitation of said resources, and scientific expansion of knowledge to make further use of said resources. Without them stuff in the ground, we'd still be hunter-gatherers on the plains. You may notice that there are places on the planet without them stuff in the ground, and the folks live pretty much as hunter-gatherers. It's not that they're backward. It's that Mother Earth gives them so little.

Without the science and engineering of organic chemistry, including figuring out the periodic table and such, that black goo at Titusville would be no more than nasty dirt on Momma's carpet. But we know all that now. Back then, scientists knew that they didn't know what physical matter consisted of. It was this ignorance that propelled us to the Bohr model. That was 1913; a rather long time ago.

While Horgan never uses these words, the point of new discovery in science or engineering is whether there will be commercial use of same. In the 19th century, sure. Today, not so much.

Here's a history of element discovery. Note how dominant the 19th century is. One could argue that plutonium (1940) was the last element of consequence. Boom?

For the macros, what all this means: that rising tide isn't out there anymore. Tracing economic history up to 1950, mid-century, or perhaps to 1970, one could argue that progress in science and engineering led to old materials, methods, and product being displaced by newer. And thus, expanding economies and employment. That's not true now. Ok, some might waffle and say, "not so much". The point is: new science and engineering means new industries. Name one since WWII? You can't. All you can do is name industries that have been miniaturized by silicon and software. The growing industry is finance, and that's a zero-sum game (or less, if CDSs dominate); skimming its revenue and profit off the real economy.

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