Photograph by Rex Features, AP

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The Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland was used in the hunt for the Higgs boson.

Photograph by Rex Features, AP

Opinion: Science Is Running Out of Things to Discover

The advancing age when Nobelists receive their prizes could suggest fewer breakthroughs are waiting to happen.

Call it confirmation bias, but I keep seeing signs that science—and especially fundamental physics, which seeks to discern the basic rules of reality—is running out of gas, just as I predicted in my 1996 book The End of Science.

The latest evidence is a "Correspondence" published today in the journal Nature. A group of six researchers, led by Santo Fortunato, professor of complex systems at Aalto University in Finland, points out that it is taking longer and longer for scientists to receive Nobel Prizes for their work.

The trend is weakest in prizes for physiology or medicine and strongest in physics. Prior to 1940, only 11 percent of physics prizes, 15 percent of chemistry prizes, and 24 percent of physiology or medicine prizes were awarded for work more than 20 years old. Since 1985, those percentages have risen to 60 percent, 52 percent, and 45 percent, respectively. If these trends continue, the Nature authors note, by the end of this century no one will live long enough to win a Nobel Prize, which cannot be awarded posthumously.

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In their brief Nature letter, Fortunato and co-authors do not speculate on the larger significance of their data, except to say that they are concerned about the future of the Nobel Prizes. But in an unpublished paper called "The Nobel delay: A sign of the decline of Physics?" they suggest that the Nobel time lag "seems to confirm the common feeling of an increasing time needed to achieve new discoveries in basic natural sciences—a somewhat worrisome trend."

This comment reminds me of an essay published in Nature a year ago, "After Einstein: Scientific genius is extinct." The author, psychologist Dean Keith Simonton, suggested that scientists have become victims of their own success. "Our theories and instruments now probe the earliest seconds and farthest reaches of the universe," he writes. Hence, scientists may produce no more "momentous leaps" but only "extensions of already-established, domain-specific expertise." Or, as I wrote in The End of Science, "further research may yield no more great revelations or revolutions, but only incremental, diminishing returns."

Needless to say, not all physicists accept this view—or the claim of Fortunato and co-authors that the Nobel time lag reported in Nature is a symptom of physics' decline. The British astrophysicist Martin Rees spins the Nobel trend in the opposite direction, suggesting that it reflects "a growing backlog of potential winners."

Rees conjectures that "there are more people than ever before whose achievements are up to the standard of most earlier winners." But he concedes that "there is indeed perhaps a lull in particle physics."

The recent discovery of the Higgs boson by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) represents, paradoxically, both a triumph for particle physics and a sign of the field's troubles. Peter Higgs and Francois Englert, who received the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics, predicted the existence of the Higgs boson—the fabled "God particle"—a half century ago.

The experimental evidence from the LHC that bears out their prediction stands as the capstone of the Standard Model of particle physics, which provides quantum accounts of the electroweak and strong nuclear forces governing the interactions of the known subatomic particles. But the Standard Model—often called the "theory of almost everything"—falls short of a full explanation of reality. For decades, physicists have sought to vault beyond it by proposing a host of unified theories, which assume deep connections between the electroweak and strong forces and even gravity. The most popular of these unified theories postulates that reality stems from infinitesimal strings wriggling in a hyperspace of nine or more dimensions.

But evidence—and hence Nobel recognition—for string theory and other unified theories remains elusive. Most recent Nobel Prizes in physics have instead recognized work that contributed to the conventional Standard Model and other preexisting theories rather than providing profound new insights into reality. For example, the 2003 and 1996 physics prizes honored research on superfluidity, a phenomenon first discovered in 1938.

I hope I'm wrong that the era of fundamental revelations is over, and there are grounds to argue I may be. In the late 1990s, for instance, two groups of astrophysicists discovered that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. The researchers won the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics for this totally unexpected finding, which hints that our understanding of the cosmos may indeed be radically incomplete.

Just last month, moreover, researchers announced that new observations of microwaves pervading the universe provide evidence of inflation, a dramatic theory of cosmic creation. Inflation theory holds that an instant after the big bang, our cosmos underwent a fantastically rapid, faster-than-light growth spurt. Inflation implies that our entire cosmos is just a tiny bubble in an oceanic "multiverse."

But I remain skeptical of inflation. There are so many different versions of the theory that it can "predict" practically any observation, meaning that it doesn't really predict anything at all. String theory suffers from the same problem. As for multiverse theories, all those hypothetical universes out there are unobservable by definition. It's hard to imagine a better reason to think we may be running out of new things to discover than the fascination of physicists with these highly speculative ideas.

I would nonetheless be delighted if further observations provide enough evidence of inflation to impress the Nobel judges, who historically have had very high standards of evidence. Physicist Max Tegmark, a proponent of multiverse theories, thinks that inflation has a "good shot" at winning a Nobel.

If the Nobel Committee on physics does decides to award prizes for the invention of inflation, it shouldn't dally. The theory was originally proposed more than 30 years ago, and its inventors, including Alan Guth and Andrei Linde—at ages 67 and 66, respectively—aren't getting any younger.

John Horgan teaches at Stevens Institute of Technology and writes the Cross-Check blog for Scientific American. Follow him on twitter at @horganism.