The Newest Science: Replacing Physics, Ecology Will Be the Master Science of the 21st Century

By Homer-Dixon, Thomas | Alternatives Journal, September-October 2009 | Go to article overview

The Newest Science: Replacing Physics, Ecology Will Be the Master Science of the 21st Century


Homer-Dixon, Thomas, Alternatives Journal


PHYSICS was the master science of the 20th century. Ecology will be the master science of the 21st century.

What do I mean by master science? A master science is, in part, the dominant scientific discipline of a historical epoch. It is the prototypical science of the time--the discipline that people think of first when they consider science. It's also likely to have produced the most spectacular discoveries and technologies. More importantly, a master science generates and orders the concepts through which society understands itself and its relation to its surroundings.

Arguably, chemistry was the master science of the 18th and 19th centuries. From Antoine Lavoisier's discovery of oxygen's role in combustion, through Friedrich August Kekule's dream about benzene rings, to Alfred Nobel's invention of dynamite, chemistry--emerging from the centuries-old practice of alchemy--produced the bulk of scientific breakthroughs during this period. It also generated the technologies of metallurgy and warfare--especially for guns, both large and small--which determined the rise and fall of the great modern empires.

In the 17th century, Isaac Newton laid the foundation for the ascendancy of physics. Although Newton's ideas were enormously sophisticated, they nevertheless assumed that the universe resembled a machine. This machine's behaviour was, Newton maintained, governed by laws that could be stated in precise mathematical formulae, making it predictable and potentially manageable. This notion of a law-governed, mathematically tractable, machine-like universe resonated within societies in the throes of the early Industrial Revolution, because everywhere machines were reordering economies, production processes and social relations. During the 18th and 19th centuries, physics also provided critical breakthroughs bearing on these machines' motive power. Sadi Carnot's analysis of the efficiency of steam engines, which laid the foundations for modern thermodynamics, was one such example.

But physics didn't come to dominate all other natural sciences until the 20th century. By 1920, Einstein's relativity had captured the imagination (if not the understanding) of educated classes. As Western civilization's old order disintegrated in the wake of World War I and the Fordist economic boom that followed (a boom that was in many ways the Industrial Revolution's apogee), the notion that reality's bedrock components, such as time and position, weren't absolute helped make sense of the turmoil and uncertainty that people saw all around them.

Yet it was physics' astonishing success in unleashing the atom's power that propelled the discipline to unchallengeable pre-eminence. The obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki established in everyone's minds--vividly and brutally--the idea that atomic scientists were the unquestioned elite of the scientific world. In the popular imagination, nuclear physics became a zone of encounter with nature's most mysterious workings and even with the eternal forces of good and evil. To stop the demons of national socialism and Japanese imperialism, atomic scientists had made a Faustian bargain in its purest form. They had released one of nature's most elemental powers and touched the mantel of God. Nothing would be the same again.

By the 1950s, nuclear physics and its quantum-mechanical offspring were strutting their stuff for all the world to see. In the process, modern physics' notions of relativity and causal indeterminacy (the latter, which means the absence of a clear link between an event and any prior cause, had often been derived, in the popular mind, from a muddled interpretation of Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle) caused upheaval in metaphysics and moral philosophy.

At the same time, somewhat bizarrely, older, mechanistic and largely deterministic analogs of Newton's concepts of force, mass, acceleration and equilibrium were infiltrating the social sciences. …

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