"Why is the sky blue?", "How do fish breathe under water?" and the hardest of all: "Where
do babies come from?" are just a few examples of never-ending questions little children
start to ask their parents, the moment they grasp the basics of their native language.
This behaviour demonstrates a characteristic of all human beings - curiosity and the need to
understand the world around us. Asking questions is part of our ongoing learning process,
which is necessary for our development and ultimately, survival. As we get older our habit
of asking "why" persists, however the questions tend to become harder and harder to
Scientists dedicate their entire lives searching for the explanation of the mechanisms
governing our world. Major advances in technology and medicine are a direct result of work
on the phenomena of electromagnetism or the structure of human brain. Given the benefits
of such work, the scientific effort will continue in order to satisfy our curiosity and improve
It may seem that we are approaching the time when we will be able to rely solely on science
to explain everything. However, is the method of "predict and test", which scientists use,
really able to answer all of our fundamental questions?
History of human effort
In the history of humankind we can notice periods of intensive scientific research as well as
periods where it was thought that the current knowledge is sufficient and there was very
little to discover. At the end of the nineteenth century it was thought that the edifice of
physics was quite well established and there was just a few missing details still to be
discovered. In essence, physics at the time was considered to be a boring field of study.
In the seventeenth century Newton formulated the laws of motion and universal
gravitation. Newton's ideas formed the basis of mechanics which explained planetary
motion and secured him a position of one of the most influential scientists of all time. About
50 years after, a Swiss mathematician and physicist Euler built up on Newton's ideas to
formulate his first law regarding linear momentum as well as his second law of angular
momentum. Further contributions in the field of mechanics were made by Lagrande,
Hamilton and Jacobi. It was partially their work which made the industrial revolution
possible, as the behaviour of rigid and elastic bodies, the flow of liquids and behaviour of
sound waves were accurately described.
The two fundamental laws of thermodynamics were formulated at the same time by Joule
and Clausius which enabled the development of a steam engine. Further work was
conducted by Boltzmann who reduced all the thermodynamic problems to mechanical ones.
Boltzmann was also the first person to who was able to explain the rather complex concept
of entropy introduced by Clausius, in terms of probability distributions of states in which a
system can exist. His concept of probability as a law of nature was not however, accepted by
everyone because of limited knowledge of the structure of matter (Brandt, 2009).
The first half of the nineteenth century saw the link between electricity and magnetism to
be found. In 1820 Orsted, a Danish physicist and chemist noticed that when an electric
current from a battery was switched on and off it produced a deflection of a magnetic
needle. This discovery encouraged him and others such as Ampere to focus their attention
on electrodynamics. Faraday's discovery of electromagnetic induction was the first step in
the development of electric motors and generators. Soon after that, James Clerk Maxwell
condensed all the electromagnetic theory into a set of differential equations. He also
predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves which was later confirmed by Hertz. Due
to the dependence of the electric current on the motion of electric charge,
electromagnetism was also thought to be a branch of mechanics.
It seemed that the peak of physics discoveries was reached by the end of nineteenth
century. Every field of it was more or less directly related to mechanics and the ideas
introduced by Newton. However, at the same time when "physics became boring", other
scientific areas such as chemistry and medicine were making important progress.
This simple analysis of the scientific discoveries throughout the centuries, presents a major
problem in determining whether science will ever be able to explain everything. It can be
noticed that once we seem to reach a peak in understanding of one field , it automatically
triggers research in another area and vice versa. Furthermore, with every question
answered there appears a few more we need to face. This situation is just like trying to
reach the exit of a building through a series of doors. Behind every door lock picked, there
appears another few doors and despite the progress made, the point of reaching the exit
seems to be further and further away. Furthermore, as we go deeper in our understanding
of the world, the difficulty in answering further questions increases. Most of the physics
theories proposed in the nineteenth century have already been replaced with more
The large hadron collider was built to reveal more information about the basic laws
governing the interactions between the elementary particles. It is one of the most advanced
engineering machines of all time. In 2013 the data obtained with the LHC confirmed the
existence of Higgs boson, a particle responsible for giving matter its mass. However, after
just five years of its operation it has become clear that a much more powerful, at least four
times as large an accelerator is needed to discover more exotic particles (Owen, 2014). This
poses a major engineering challenge. It may therefore seem that the more detailed
understanding we have, the slower the further progress we are making because of
constrains such as technology available to conduct new experiments.
It can be argued that eventually, having sufficient time, science will answer all the questions.
Some have even suggested that we are very close to revealing the true story. However, such
statements had been made at various points in history before. Embarrassingly, despite all
the advances in modern technology, there are simple, at the first glance, questions we are
unable to answer. For instance, we are still unable to explain the purpose of the activity we
spend almost a third of our lives on - sleep. While the mechanism itself is quite well
understood its function is still puzzling scientists.
In search of the ultimate answer
The twentieth century was the time of intensive work for physicists once again. The
discovery of radioactivity and nuclear fission introduced new area of research - nuclear
physics. It was soon realised that in addition to gravity and electromagnetic force there exist
two additional fundamental forces, strong and weak, responsible for nuclear interactions.
Einstein's theory of general and special relativity has changed our perception of space and
time. The formulation of quantum mechanics in the first half of the 20th century reduced
the significance of classical mechanics to being just an approximation, valid for large
systems, which undergo little fluctuations.
A lot of effort is currently being put by many physicists around the globe to once again
condense our understanding of the world into a single thesis which would be able to explain
all phenomena - theory of everything. Super-string model is currently considered by many
as that fundamental theory where the discovery of extra dimensions would enable the
general relativity and quantum mechanics to be unified (Barrow, 2007).
However, going back to the analysis of major scientific breakthroughs and the fact that the
nineteenth century physics was considered to be fundamental at the time, it is worth asking
whether such theory of everything can exist. How can we be sure that having come up with
such theory it can be considered to be fundamental and final? Any new phenomena
discovered would have the potential to disprove such thesis. Therefore, even though in
principle it may be possible to combine all of our current knowledge into a single theory, we
would never be able to call it the theory of everything.
Regardless of whether such unification is possible or not, it is also crucial to consider
whether the tools we have at our disposal are sufficient to understand the most
fundamental questions such as how, when and why the universe came into being.
The problem with ability of science to answer all questions lies in the methodology used.
Although scientific method of predicting, testing and analysis of the results is adequate in
getting to understand various mechanisms of the universe, it is very doubtful it will ever
reveal if such mechanisms are the result of just random events or have any deeper meaning
,which so many people are desperate to find.
The methodology we have is simply limited to taking measurements and analysing the
results. It is not the problem of inaccurate method itself, which needs to be improved but
rather the "natural" limitations of it. Some therefore, consider such questions of purpose
and meaning as pointless from the scientific point of view.
Furthermore, the existence of "magic numbers" such as the golden ratio or pi is a mystery
itself. Their appearance in all areas of life has been troubling scientists for centuries.
Another amazing feature of our universe is the simplicity with which we can express the
laws governing it. The Einstein's relativistic equations take up space less than half of the A4
page. Most of physics contains simple arithmetic equations, which can be understood
without any advanced knowledge of mathematics. It is beauty in itself that we are able to
express those laws and predict their effect with such simplicity.
The subject of whether or not science will ever explain everything is not a simple one. We
can consider time as our major ally in the search of all the answers. Having sufficient time
one may think that all the answers will eventually be provided. However, as previously
noted, with every problem solved comes another question. We come to realise that "the
more we learn about our universe the less we truly know about it".
The real problem however, with the ability of science to explain everything is not the rate at
which it reveals the answers but the methodology used in providing them. As Einstein
pointed out in his Princeton Theological seminary "For the scientific method can teach us
nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned by, each other. One can have
the clearest and most complete knowledge of what is, and yet not be able to deduct from
that what should be the goal of our human aspirations" (Einstein, 1950). It is clear that the
scientific method has its limitations. For an ordinary person it is the questions of purpose
and meaning , rather than how nucleons interact, which they are most concerned with. It is
unfortunately, something science will never be able to explain.
The scientific method is however, the greatest tool we have in our hands in looking for
answers. This effort in finding them will continue, to the benefit of humankind.
Barrow, J. D. (2007). New Theories of Everthing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Brandt, S. (2009). The Harvest of a Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Einstein, A. (1950). Out of My Later Years. New York: Philosophical Library.
Owen, J. (2014, February 19). Beyond Cern: Now physicists prepare to construct the even Larger
Hadron Collider. Retrieved February 19, 2014, from The Independent: