Chapter 1 from A Different Universe by Robert Laughlin.
Science as a frontier:
The idea of science as a great frontier is similarly timeless. While there are clearly many nonscientific sources of adventure left, science is the unique place where genuine wildness may still be found.
My particular branch of science, theoretical physics, is concerned with the ultimate causes of things.
I suspect it is an atavistic trait aquired long ago in Africa for surviving in a physical world in which there actually are causes and effects – for example proximity to lions and being eaten.
All of us secretly wish for an ultimate theory, a master set of rules form which all truth would flow and that could forever free us from the frustration of dealing with facts.
First you find that your wish for an ultimate theory at the level of human-scale phenomena has been fulfilled.
The repeated, detailed experimental confirmation of these relationships has now official closed the frontier of reductionism at the level of everyday things.
The important laws we know about are, without exception, serendipitous discoveries rather than deductions.
The logical conflict between an open frontier on the one hand and a set of master rules on the other is resolved by the phenomenon of emergence.
I mean a physical principle of organisation.
Thus the tendency of nature to form a hierarchical society of physical laws is much more that an academic debating point. It is why the world is knowable. It renders the most fundamental laws, whatever they are, irrelevant and protects us from being tyrannized by them. It is the reason we can live without understanding the ultimate secrets of the universe.
Thus the end of knowledge and the closing of the frontier it symbolizes is not a looming crisis at all, but merely one of many embarrassing fits of hubris in civilization’s long history.