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Science Theory Stagnation (6.4)

 ·  ☕ 18 min read

6.4 Consequences of high complexity (more is different)

In 1972, the Nobel Prize winner and famous physicist Philip Anderson published a paper “More Is Different: Broken Symmetry and the Nature of the Hierarchical Structure of Science” in the most famous international magazine “Science” ( Science, 177 (4047): 393-396). The article points out that the reductionist ideas that have achieved brilliant success in the past hundreds of years cannot be used indefinitely. To use an analogy, according to the idea of ​​reductionism, molecular physics is governed by elementary particle physics, chemistry is governed by molecular physics, biology is governed by chemistry, psychology is governed by physiology, and social sciences are governed by psychology. According to this theory, the application of several laws of elementary particle physics can deduce the complex behavior of human beings, but human intuition will find that this is not the case. Anderson pointed out that the behavior of large and complex collections of elementary particles cannot be understood by simply extrapolating the properties of a few elementary particles. In fact, at every level of complexity, brand-new properties will appear. The simple point is that the whole is definitely not a superposition of parts, and complexity will change everything, or more is different.
Philip Anderson

In the past hundreds of years, mankind has invented a variety of methods to deal with technical complexity, such as modularization and pipeline. But the technological complexity has developed to the point where it is today, and it is very likely that a “more is different” era will be ushered in.

6.4.1 I know and have a life and life and death competition

The complexity and scale of the contemporary scientific system, technological system, and industrial system have greatly exceeded the level before World War II, which sets a paradox trap for the creation of human science. As pointed out earlier, given the huge system of modern science and technology, it is no longer possible for omnipotent like Newton and Fermi to appear. Even for a small field, high complexity also brings an obvious fact: the learning speed of the human brain cannot keep up with the expansion of complexity, and the aging speed of the human body exceeds the thinking speed of the brain.

A large number of psychological studies have shown that most people become more conservative after the age of 50. If you look at the history books, you know that most of the breakthrough scientific research results were made in the youth of scientific and technological workers. As one netizen pointed out, the huge accumulation of modern science and technology has become a huge burden on human creativity. In the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, most scientists made great scientific achievements at a very young age, and now the age for individuals to make great achievements has been increasingly delayed.

As far as technology is concerned, the golden age of human personal creativity is between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, because this period is the most unrestrained and unconstrained, many of the greatest geniuses are here. The age group lays the foundation. The golden creations of Newton and Einstein were at this age. Yang Zhenning was 36 years old when he won the Nobel Prize, and Li Zhengdao was 31 years old. The achievements they won were published 2 years before the award. Galois, the genius of mathematical group theory, made great contributions to mathematics in a very short life. He died at the age of 21. Maxwell, who is as famous as Newton, completed the classic masterpiece “On Electricity and Magnetism” on electromagnetic field theory at the age of 34, unifying the theory of electricity and magnetism, electricity and light. Maxwell has determined his academic goals since he was 24 years old, and explained Faraday, who can only stay at the experimental level, on the theoretical level.

In addition to the scientific field, the same goes for the technical field. Edison, Bill Gates, and Jobs all emerged and made great contributions at a very young age.

After World War II, the high level of complexity made scientists and technical creators still learn rather than create during the golden period of life’s creativity. Many people have just figured out the framework of their subject field when they are 30 years old, and then started to conduct scientific research. And this has missed the golden period of life creation, making revolutionary ideas more and more difficult to produce.

Although human society has made various efforts to accelerate the learning speed of individuals (including knowledge sorting, path planning, computer-aided and modular processing), unfortunately, the learning time is getting longer and longer. A Ph.D. graduation in the early 30s is already standard, and it will take a while to really understand the frontier. The knowledge necessary for the subject continues to accumulate, and one day, even those legendary geniuses will spend most of their lives in learning old knowledge.

The high complexity makes the current Ph.D. sorry for the word “Bo”. In order to cope with the depth of knowledge, the breadth of knowledge is largely sacrificed. In human history, many scientific and technological breakthroughs are by analogy, borrowing progress in other fields to break the predicament in this field. The most typical one is that Einstein introduced Riemannian geometry into general relativity. Modern R&D workers are often entangled in a certain problem and cannot solve it. It is possible that methods or ideas in some other field can be used for reference, but human nature is often easy to fall into the dilemma of local extreme points and cannot escape, and it is highly complex. , Dig the pit deeper than ever.

The accumulation of knowledge has turned into a burden, and it seems that there is no good solution. At least until now, the thinking ability of the human brain has not shown signs of accelerated evolution. In other words, the human brain has not changed much compared to 500 years ago. Some people may raise objections, thinking that the learning speed and thinking ability of geniuses are far beyond ordinary people, but a major feature of technology is that technology is the product of interaction between people and society. To turn ideas into reality, a large number of relevant personnel are required to cooperate with the work. Genius alone is not enough.

Many people place their hopes on artificial intelligence, even artificial intelligence with innovative capabilities, and some believe that the human brain can be further developed. Maybe the progress in biology will make the brain revolution possible. But this is an arms race. It is foreseeable that whether super artificial intelligence or brain revolution, the theoretical and technical complexity involved will be extremely high, then humans can overcome this high complexity before they grow old. Create a “tool to overcome complexity”?

Zhuangzi said: “My life has bounds, and knowing has no bounds. If there is no bounds, it is almost dead!” For human beings, it is currently: “Birth also has bounds, and knowing also has bounds. Tired!”


6.4.2 Technical maintenance costs

As mentioned earlier, technical elements can be regarded as living entities. Biology needs to eat and rest regularly, and technical elements also need to be maintained. Low-level organisms may survive with a little dregs. Higher-level organisms, such as humans, need to expend a huge amount of negative entropy; early technology does not require too much energy from humans, and today’s complex technologies require the entire human race to establish a huge system to maintain.

The process of human technological evolution is like picking apples from an apple tree. The easiest thing to find is that the best apples must be the first to be included in people’s pockets. Similarly, the first developed technologies are all low-complexity. Take energy technology as an example. Firewood is the least energy-intensive, but it is easy to obtain and can be done by hand without too much skill. The same is true for technologies in other fields. In classical society before the arrival of industrialization, the use and maintenance of most technical products were relatively simple. Even a novice, illiterate, could quickly start operation after simple training.

But after the low-hanging fruit was picked, the complexity began to increase. Coal mining is much more difficult than firewood, and requires a series of supporting equipment and skills. Although coal provides much more energy than firewood, related operations have begun to be professional. However, the difficulty of oil extraction has further increased. Specifically, a complete set of work such as survey location, plan design, and drilling and mining is required. This requires investment in manpower and material costs, and it is not simple manpower, but manpower with a certain degree of education.

This trend has not slowed down. After World War II, the complexity of many technical products, such as nuclear power plants, reached an astonishing level. Without a long period of professional study, one cannot understand the principles at all. To use technical products proficiently, a long period of training is also necessary.

Simultaneously with the complexity of technical products, other aspects of society have gradually become complicated. The most typical one is the financial tax system. The complexity of the modern financial system is not imaginable in the past.

Even if it does not seek further development of technology, to maintain the existing system, human society must pay a lot of costs.

Compulsory education is a typical example: the profit of capital is based on the professional skills of the public, and the technical complexity brought about by industrialization is the biggest driving force for the implementation of compulsory education. Reflected on the social level, it is the extension of public education (including school education and vocational training). Before the industrial revolution, the per capita education time may have been less than one year, and later became three, six, and nine years. Now, most countries have basically universalized education for 12 years, and many countries’ higher education has become popular. stage.

On the other hand, many organizations must professionally hire a large number of personnel to maintain existing facilities. A complex product involves all aspects of professional technology, and it is not just a person who can do the job. For example, when the author worked in the company, most of the time was not editing new code, but maintaining the code left by the predecessors, and conducting joint debugging with people in other aspects of the system!

A company, especially a large company, really does little to carry out exploratory work, and most of the company’s expenses are spent on maintaining existing products. For organizations that use these products, a lot of expenses also come from the maintenance of technical products. The most typical example is that the lifetime maintenance cost of an aircraft engine turns out to be more than three times the purchase cost.

Therefore, in many cases, the seemingly scary R&D costs are only a small part of the blade. Entering the new century, although NASA’s annual funding cannot be compared with the peak period, the absolute amount is still scary, but why does NASA seem to be silent on cutting-edge technology? In addition to the complexity itself, most of NASA’s funds are used for maintenance and support!

If one considers the problem of embezzlement, which is popular all over the world, the ratio will be even smaller.

6.4.3 Negative feedback from society

Modern society, whether science or technology, has a complex entangled relationship with the society in which it is located. It affects society and is also subject to social feedback. Such feedback may be more positive feedback in the early days, but now it has become negative feedback.

As mentioned above, the technical research and development work after World War II is very different from the past. In most fields, there is no “lone ranger” like the early Edison. The development of a new product often includes the stages of demand analysis, program design, production realization, and test evaluation. The R&D costs of most products exceed the range of personal financial resources and must rely on the power of the enterprise to organize the implementation. However, scientific research equipment such as large particle accelerators is no longer affordable by one person or a group of people. Only the state can build relevant infrastructure.

Many scientific researchers have a strange ideal: Scientific research and development is a noble thing, and scientific and technological investment is an obligation of society and the country. But the fact is that under high complexity, because it cannot ensure that scientific and technological research and development will go smoothly, or even that the direction of research and development is correct, society and capital are cautious about related investment. When science and technology workers rely on external funds to carry out research work, they will suddenly find that the biggest obstacle to progress is not nature, but society.

From the perspective of knowledge advancement, human society has the obligation to provide endless resources to support scientific and technological research and development. After all, the introduction of new negative entropy flows cannot be separated from technological advances. But reality is another matter.

First of all, society is made up of various groups. Most groups have their own interests. It is impossible and unwilling to pay for the huge amount of funding for technology for a long time. For example, if you want to vote to cut benefits to raise funds for technology research and development, even if propagandists portray the future better than heaven, most people will still vote to veto the resolution. Similarly, the primary purpose of an enterprise is to profit and maintain operations, and the purpose of research and development is to make money. Therefore, the angle of thinking of grantors is different from that of scientific and technological workers. The person in charge of funding must consider the input-output ratio. The pressure from the public or the board must be considered.

Secondly, human society is composed of nearly 200 countries and regions, and it is still far from “global harmony”. There are competitions and struggles between countries. This kind of competition is sometimes the driving force of science and technology (such as the space race during the Cold War), but in the 21st century when capital is increasingly dominant, it has begun to show negative effects.

The high complexity of modern technology has brought a terrible defect: the cost is huge. When Edison made improvements to incandescent lamps, he carried out verification or trial and error of more than 500 materials, but it didn’t matter, the cost was small, and the individual could afford it. Can modern particle accelerators perform more than 500 experiments? It is impossible to conduct an experiment without going through a series of lengthy procedures and preparations. This huge expenditure means that technological research and development ultimately depends on the game of various interest groups.

Here are some facts related to technology:

  • (1) Superconducting Super Collider (SSC). On October 21, 1993, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate reached an agreement to stop the construction of the SSC. On October 26, 1993, the House of Representatives passed the final amendment proposal 332 to 81. After going through the Senate procedural steps, the proposal was signed and implemented by President Clinton. So far, despite having invested more than 2 billion US dollars, SSC has truly come to an end. The plan cost 8 billion U.S. dollars, but the Americans after the Cold War could not afford it and terminated early.
  • (2) On February 24, 2011, the US space shuttle “Discover” was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the International Space Station. The “Discover”, which has been in service for nearly 27 years, will perform its last flight mission. On July 21, 2011, the US space shuttle “Atlantis” landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:57 a.m. Eastern Time on the 21st (17:57 on the 21st, Beijing time), ending its " The curtain call", this means that the 30-year space shuttle era in the United States has come to an end.

space shuttle
In 1970, after the United States landed on the moon, China sent its first artificial satellite to the sky. In 2003, the Chinese entered space for the first time, more than 40 years later than the Americans. But with the end of the space shuttle technology road, the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars, making little progress, and China has basically not invested in the space shuttle. After 2011, China and the United States have actually reached the same starting line, and everyone will have to rely on spacecraft in the future.

(3) In order to build the atomic bomb, the United States spent US$2 billion (2 billion in 1942, when an ounce of gold was only US$38). However, it became easier for countries to build atomic bombs. Small industrial countries such as Pakistan and North Korea could build them.

(4) Compared with Europe, the United States is a low-welfare society, but its annual investment in welfare is more than a hundred times that of controllable nuclear fusion research and development.

R&D of science and technology does not necessarily guarantee success. In many cases, the frontiers are trial and error, exploring feasible technological paths. As mentioned above, refined technical solutions and products are produced only after a lot of trial and error. In the early stages of industrial civilization, when Edison conducted filament experiments, most of the trial and error costs were not large, and it didn’t matter if you tried several times. However, with the increase in technical complexity, the cost increases sharply, and trial and error becomes more and more expensive. Especially when searching for the next feasible technological path, a mistake in one step can hardly be recovered for decades. The US space shuttle road was mentioned above. NASA originally expected the space shuttle to significantly reduce the cost of space. As a result, the cost of the space shuttle was not low, but the failure rate was higher. The Americans’ 30-year investment on this has basically lost ground.

It doesn’t matter if you fail by trial and error alone. It is also an accumulation of experience for yourself, but the problem is that your own failure points to the competitor that this is not the way, and you don’t have to invest money. Nowadays, China has no interest in the space shuttle, and has taken the spacecraft path wholeheartedly. NASA’s original 40-year advantage over China has been offset by 30 years, and China’s cost is relatively small.

Even if the trial and error succeeds and a technological path is found, the sorrow of the pioneers is that the success brought about by huge investment is easy to be imitated by competitors, and often it can be imitated with relatively little expenditure, such as the atomic bomb.

As a leader in technological advancement, Americans slowly figured out that they had to spend their own money to invest in science and technology to get their competitors in the cold. It was a last resort during the Cold War, but the less such things, the better. So the world has seen the United States terminate the construction of the superconducting supercollider. The reason is simple. If the SSC experiment cannot provide useful information about elementary particles, it will be built for nothing; if it can provide useful information (note that it is only information, it is far from reaching the stage of benefit), wouldn’t other countries in the world share it for nothing? Even if the information is blocked, the blocking of the information itself is a hint that other countries can build their own SSC without a hassle. For other countries, there is no risk.

For American taxpayers, unless a huge investment can bring substantial returns in real terms, or face a life-and-death race like the Cold War, it is indeed a foolish act to carry out technological research and development regardless of cost.

All in all, the West used various means (especially American financial means) to occupy most of the world’s wealth after the Cold War. This part of wealth should have been used for cutting-edge research and development related to human life and death, but there was no threat from the Soviet Union. In the face of high complexity and uncertain expectations, the West is more willing to turn this part of wealth into financial capital to continue to exploit the third world. Therefore, most of the research and development work in Western developed countries is carried out at the company level. The research and development that can really open up a new technological path often requires the state to organize or guarantee it, but the reality is that the Americans are in a state of hesitation, and other countries are not living Leifeng, so the three monks have no water to eat.


1 Civilization and technology
1.1 Rough talk about paradigm
1.2 The paradigm shift experienced by human civilization
1.3 Science Theory stagnation
1.4 The gap between science and technology
2 The paradigm spring dream advocated by scientific and technological interest groups: the so-called technological explosion
2.1 Rendering and brainwashing
2.2 Papers and patents: the absurdity behind astronomical numbers
2.3-2.4 The bit world and the real world / Part and whole
3 The shadow outside the paradigm spring dream
3.1 The technological dilemma faced by humans
3.2 Numerous technical gimmicks
3.2.5 New gimmicks in recent years
3.3 Frustration of PhD laborers and biotechnology

4 The dilemma of low-entropy body and the technical steps faced
4.1 From the second law of thermodynamics
4.2 The backbone and forks of the technology tree
4.3 Forever 50 years and controlled nuclear fusion
4.4 The future is not always better

5 The Pit Before 5 Steps: The Fate of Human Society
5.1 The Sociological Significance of Dissipative Structure Theory
5.2 The disappearance of the big competitive environment
5.3 Differences erased by globalization and the thermodynamic balance of human society
5.4 Aging self-locking
5.5 How to fill the hole?

6 The essence of 6 steps: complexity devil
6.1 What is complexity
6.2 Two rules behind the complicated world: survival of the fittest and expectation of return on capital
6.3 Technological progress and technological revolution: changes in complexity
6.3.1 Evolution example of transportation / power system
6.3.2 The characteristics and complexity of the technological revolution
6.3.3 The high-complexity science devil facing
6.3.4 Dilemma originating from technical foundation
6.4 Many evil consequences brought by high complexity ( more is different)
6.4.1 I know you have a life and death race
6.4.2 Maintenance costs
6.4.3 Negative feedback from society
6.5 Simple mathematical derivation

7 Silent Star implied by the prospect of terror
7.1 The Great Silence and Fermi Paradox
7.2 Three scenarios for contemplating extreme fear
7.3 The Great Sieve of the Universe
7.4 A small match

8 reflection and summary
8.1 The tragedy of Easter Island
8.2 Calmness does not mean pessimism
8.3 R&D requires a paradigm revolution

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