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The human need to make sense of life


The limits of science
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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Science is a formal description of the world in terms of generality, predictiveness and interest, fine. It's a constraint. But I do not, as you know, believe it's exhaustive and, yes, there are limits of science; it's obvious where they are. For... for example, the known universe at the speed of light, we know, what is what now 13 billion years or something like that, but we can't get beyond and there's no way within our known physics that we could ever get beyond that particular light barrier. And when we come to the Big Bang there... there are going to be people who are saying, 'Well, yes, what it is is a fluctuation in a false vacuum and that's how it all happened.' But the idea that somehow we would be able to get beyond that without asking silly questions like, 'What was time like before the Big Bang?' And the answer according to what we presently know is: 'Don't be silly, there is none.'

There's also clearly the notion that science does not replace the world or duplicate it in giving it its formal properties, and that's a pretty important thing too. And then if you put that together with our idea about how creativity rests in a certain sense on metaphor and ambiguity, both of which are lousy as scientific theories but as a beginning, and then get refined according to procedures, depending on the history of that science, etc., and its modes. When you put all that together I think you get a lenient, more modest view of what we can do. Now, I know what the answer could be from a skeptic. It would be: 'Well, you can't tell what the future will bring.' And that skeptic would be perfectly right; it could be that everything I say right now is nonsense. It could very well be that 200 years from now science will uncover things that we just absolutely couldn't even have thought of.

US biologist Gerald Edelman (1929-2014) successfully constructed a precise model of an antibody, a protein used by the body to neutralise harmful bacteria or viruses and it was this work that won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 jointly with Rodney R Porter. He then turned his attention to neuroscience, focusing on neural Darwinism, an influential theory of brain function.

Listeners: Ralph J. Greenspan

Dr. Greenspan has worked on the genetic and neurobiological basis of behavior in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) almost since the inception of the field, studying with one of its founders, Jeffery Hall, at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he received his Ph.D. in biology in 1979. He subsequently taught and conducted research at Princeton University and New York University where he ran the W.M. Keck Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology, relocating to San Diego in 1997 to become a Senior Fellow in Experimental Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute. Dr. Greenspan’s research accomplishments include studies of physiological and behavioral consequences of mutations in a neurotransmitter system affecting one of the brain's principal chemical signals, studies making highly localized genetic alterations in the nervous system to alter behavior, molecular identification of genes causing naturally occurring variation in behavior, and the demonstration that the fly has sleep-like and attention-like behavior similar to that of mammals. Dr. Greenspan has been awarded fellowships from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Searle Scholars Program, the McKnight Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and the Klingenstein Foundation. In addition to authoring research papers in journals such as "Science", "Nature", "Cell", "Neuron", and "Current Biology", he is also author of an article on the subject of genes and behavior for "Scientific American" and several books, including "Genetic Neurobiology" with Jeffrey Hall and William Harris, "Flexibility and Constraint in Behavioral Systems" with C.P. Kyriacou, and "Fly Pushing: The Theory and Practice of Drosophila Genetics", which has become a standard work in all fruit fly laboratories.

Tags: science, light speed, universe, Big Bang, scepticism, limits

Duration: 1 minute, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008