An unusual meeting of scientists took place in Paris this summer, when scientists gathered to brainstorm about the need for a new science, one that could be as revolutionary as Einstein's insights were a century ago.
Most scientists assume that the basics of science are known. In terms of big challenges, the conventional wisdom is that few things are left to discover. The remaining options are said to fall into three groups: "grand scientific quandaries" (such as uniting gravity and electricity into one theory) which require a huge investment and first-world infrastructure; "data collection," which is the field work associated with archeological digs and biological/genetic surveys; and "science-informed problems," such as combating AIDS or addressing global warming.
Beyond that, many believe the only hard work will be to use existing laws to benefit humankind in new technological ways. Who can argue? After all, today's models work.
But an emerging group of scientists points to phenomena that current theories do not address well. These problems are exceedingly common and artfully avoided because the science that would account for them just doesn't exist.
This missing science would describe processes and how entire systems evolve.
Individual scientific disciplines are understood fairly well. Physics, at least the physics we encounter as ordinary humans, is well mapped. Chemistry and biochemistry are similarly solid -- there are some things we don't understand about the body, but it is believed that the basic machinery of how cells and molecules interact is known. Slightly apart from these are the new social sciences, which deal with humans and societies.
In each of these areas -- physics, biochemistry and social science -- the theories are mature and largely uncontroversial. Each discipline has its own language and its own separate machinery. Rarely is a scientist an expert in more than one area, because the worlds and languages are so different.
This means that we can't answer complex questions that depend on more than one field. Consider the brain, for example. This complex organ is composed of molecules that interact using the principles of physics. That information moves according to the laws of electricity. There is also a system of specialized cells and these interact, exchanging chemicals that also convey information. The interaction between two brains adds another level: Here, information is exchanged by means of languages, signs and ideas.
Information is at work on each level and comfortable theories explain how the separate ones operate. But information is being exchanged between the levels as well. There is no science that explains this, even at the most rudimentary level.
To cope with this deficiency, some scientists have tried to reinvent the tools of one level in order to apply them to another. This leads to such things as a "language" at the level of cells and "energy" behind organized societies. Sometimes the transplant works well enough, but it does not address the central problem: What is the nature of the information conveyed between each level, and how is it conveyed?
As it happens, nearly every system in the world is composed of such layers. A similarly embarrassing lack of understanding about how the whole system works exists in every case.