Is science stuck? The "Great Stagnation Debate," explained

All the low-hanging fruit has been picked, so it seems — a principle that applies to art and invention, too

By Michael Bhaskar

Published November 26, 2021 2:00PM (EST)

CERN (European Organization For Nuclear Research) (Luis Davilla/Cover/Getty Images)
CERN (European Organization For Nuclear Research) (Luis Davilla/Cover/Getty Images)

Excerpted from Human Frontiers:  The Future of Big Ideas in an Age of Small Thinking by Michael Bhaskar. Reprinted with permission from The MIT PRESS. Copyright 2021.

For most of history, it was by no means obvious what was an irreducible material — what we now call a chemical element. But investigators discovered the building blocks of the universe and, in so doing, built an extraordinary foundational account of chemistry.

This history displays an uneven gradient of progress. Some elements, like gold, copper or iron, had been known for centuries. Early experimenters developed an understanding of elements like carbon and sulphur. From there, though, an infrastructure of techniques and tools, knowledge sharing and accumulation was required for exploration to keep going. Nonetheless, as the picture began to fill out individuals were still capable of making a huge impact. In the late eighteenth century, the British scientist Sir Humphrey Davy alone predicted the existence of elements like potassium, sodium and calcium, and was then able to isolate them. Around the same time the discovery of fundamentals of chemistry like hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen altered the chemical lexicon forever.

It was the more plentiful elements that were usually found first, relatively simple experiments sufficing to confirm their existence. Then it got harder. Progress slowed, before a breakthrough technology or insight opened a door and the process was repeated. For example, the rate of discovery dipped in the middle of the nineteenth century before accelerating at its end. When Mendeleev first announced the periodic table to the Russian Chemical Society in 1869, it included sixty-three elements. Soon after, new techniques enabled the discovery of noble gases like argon and neon. Then came radioactive elements like polonium and radium. But this was all much more difficult than stumbling across iron or even isolating oxygen. Fitting the wider pattern of diminishing returns and rational pessimism, the number of elements discovered per chemistry paper published then declined right up to the present.

Discoveries continue, but you need enormous equipment and extremely rare source materials to find these 'superheavy' elements. They are elusive and unstable, decaying in moments. Indeed, one Russian lab has built a $60 million experiment just to try and find the elements numbered 119 and 120. Compare the journey of discovery for two elements a few centuries apart:

Element 117 was discovered by an international collaboration who got an unstable isotope of berkelium from the single accelerator in Tennessee capable of synthesizing it, shipped it to a nuclear reactor in Russia where it was attached to a titanium film, brought it to a particle accelerator in a different Russian city where it was bombarded with a custom-made exotic isotope of calcium, sent the resulting data to a global team of theorists, and eventually found a signature indicating that element 117 had existed for a few milliseconds. Meanwhile, the first modern element discovery, that of phosphorous in the 1670s, came from a guy looking at his own piss.  

Nobody knows how many elements potentially exist, but it's clear that when it comes to the periodic table, the low-hanging fruit was naturally picked first. Regardless of where the table ends, the direction is towards ever more difficult discovery. There will be no more Humphry Davys.

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That we pick the low-hanging fruit first is a truism. But its impact is enormous and almost wholly overlooked in policy, business and intellectual life, even among many who engage with the Great Stagnation Debate. Not only do we pick them first, but the world is unidirectional; save for extreme calamities like the collapse of the Roman Empire, once a discovery has been made, a technique implemented or a thing invented, it stays made, implemented or invented. That is to say, big ideas happen and are achieved once. They might have long histories, numerous tweaks and subsequent revisions, but this doesn't hide the fact that once a big idea has been conceived, executed and found purchase, doing the same cannot rival it. The frontier has already moved. This fact alone explains much of the present's mixed track record. And it is part of why the future contains such daunting challenges.

Although the theory is controversial, more and more scientists, economists and thinkers argue that the low-hanging fruit problem is real. Barring the intervention of transformational tools, discoveries or circumstances (the grand questions, all of which will be discussed), success at generating and delivering big ideas raises the bar for further big ideas. All things being equal, realizing, delivering, instantiating, imagining the significant ideas of the next one hundred or two hundred years will be – objectively – more difficult than those of the past. This emphatically does not mean there are no more low-hanging fruits. The argument is not that they don't exist, only that in future they will be fewer and trickier to obtain.

Economists use this concept to explain slowing growth and the introduction of new technology.  In the "special century" already discussed, the average human life went from rudimentary – most people living in quasi-medieval conditions – to, roughly, barring some digital bells and whistles, an existence like ours today. As we know, everything from telephones to radio, fridges to central heating, motor cars to electric light was introduced during those years. Despite the average family having vastly more wealth than in the 1950s, these improvements are effectively one-time events, and so that increased wealth doesn't translate into a kind of never-ending experiential escalator. Ubiquitous light or a warm home and the big ideas behind them have happened: no other home lighting or heating idea will have equivalent impact. You can try re-inventing the wheel, but it will still be a wheel.

An equivalent process can be seen in the arts. There can be only one Andy Warhol, Doris Lessing, Elvis Presley or Zaha Hadid, in that repeating their techniques never has the same impact. After the breakthrough is made, the idea established, the fruit eaten, the frontier shifted, it may cast a long shadow, but again it has happened, the world is changed. Repainting, rewriting, redesigning, reperforming is not equivalent. Once an aesthetic space has been opened, it's open. Play in it all you want, but the key moment has already occurred. The same applies to scientific discovery; Copernicus might be revised, corrected and superseded, but (if we can set aside the Greeks for a second) the basic move – shifting our universe – has been made. I can paint like Picasso, suggest that an Internet search engine would make a clever business, or isolate oxygen but no one would accuse me of originality. This doesn't mean that new things won't come up in the future; it means we should expect a steeper bar, because "obvious" avenues at the frontier are already taken.

Charles I. Jones talks about "fishing out" as a possible mechanism by which the generation of ideas gets harder: in the great pond of ideas, the fat and lazy fish have all been caught. That is, ideas get harder as ideas are thought. Are we all fished out? While I don't think we are, Jones is right to say, given the breakthrough problem and diminishing returns, that easy pickings are scarce and getting scarcer.

Ideas lie on a ladder of ascending difficulty or obscurity. The tools, methods and paradigms of the past cannot always make the climb. Scaling it rather requires external, frequently unforeseen breakthroughs, or more resources, or old-fashioned luck. Often all three. We therefore rely on circumstances being equal to the challenge, but there is no necessary reason they ever should be. It's not that problems in the past were easy, the fruit lazily waiting; just that those strides forward moved us on to new peaks. Now they surround us.

Archaeology presents an interesting analogy: techniques like geophysical surveys, sophisticated dating technologies, drone mapping, autonomous submersibles, big data analysis of satellite imagery, lidar scans and 3D imaging amplify the discipline. Archaeologists can peer deep beneath the earth or within structures without having to lift so much as a trowel. They have more knowledge, more ability to collaborate and share data, expertise and tools. The capacity for making significant archaeological discoveries has never been greater and, indeed, impressive results have been delivered in recent years – from a complete Greek galleon to some of the earliest known paintings, sixty thousand hidden Mayan structures, mummy workshops, a palace of Ramses II and evidence of human migrations and ancestors earlier than any previously suspected.

But the impact doesn't compare with the early days. There was a golden window for breakthrough archaeological finds, like Arthur Evans' coming across Minoan civilization at Knossos, the great Heinrich Schliemann's uncovering of Troy, Yale-affiliated Hiram Bingham's adventurous rediscovery of Machu Picchu, the opening by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon of Tutankhamun's tomb in Luxor's Valley of Kings, Leonard Woolley's excavations in Iraq, and the discovery of Sumer and Ur and Uruk, cities older than had been known. Not to mention the caves at Lascaux, the Dead Sea Scrolls . . .

This is no skin off the nose of contemporary archaeologists. It's just that back then the low-hanging fruit were bigger and riper, and no matter how much we throw at it, we're unlikely to be able to repeat such stunning finds. Significant discoveries become less likely over time, even as the capacity to make them grows. We won't find Atlantis because, truthfully, if it existed they'd already be offering guided tours and fridge magnets.

Archaeology isn't a universally applicable illustration, in that there are a finite number of objects or sites to be found. It does however illustrate how when a field or technology or business is new, its growth accelerates fast, progress comes in leaps and bounds. But this cannot go on forever. Once the low-hanging fruit have been plucked what remains are more obscure concepts, knottier problems, mature markets, dustier corners in the attic of invention.

The nature of ideas means we must ascend rungs of difficulty and obscurity – and will keep on doing so. Despite being frequently dismissed, the low-hanging fruit phenomenon is ingrained. Science, technology, human civilization – unlike archaeology, these may be boundless territories. But we reach – and have reached – the more navigable destinations first. The corollary is clear. All things being equal, future destinations will be harder.

Excerpted from "Human Frontiers: The Future of Big Ideas in an Age of Small Thinking" by Michael Bhaskar. Reprinted with permission from The MIT PRESS. Copyright 2021.

Michael Bhaskar

Michael Bhaskar is a writer, researcher, and cofounder of Canelo Digital Publishing. The author of "Curation" and "The Content Machine," he spent two years as a consultant Writer-in-Residence at DeepMind, the leading AI research lab. He has been featured in the Guardian, the Financial Times and on the BBC, among other media outlets.

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