Monday, April 22, 2013

Why Galileo Still Matters

Scientific Method



Galileo's Two World System; “Facts which at first seem improbable will, even on scant explanation, drop the cloak which has hidden them and stand forth in naked and simple beauty.”
Source: BBC News
In an article in BBC News, Adam Gopnik writes about Galileo and his importance among the many great scientists and thinkers in history.
Not long ago, for instance, I wrote an essay about the great Galileo, and the beginnings of modern science. I explained, or tried to, that what made Galileo's work science, properly so-called, wasn't that he was always right about the universe (he was very often wrong) but that he believed in searching for ways of finding out what was right by figuring out what would happen in the world if he wasn't.
One story of that search is famous. When he wanted to find out if Aristotle was wrong to say that a small body would fall at a different speed from a large body, he didn't look the answer up in an old book about falling objects. Instead, he threw cannonballs of two different sizes off the Tower of Pisa, and, checking to make sure that no-one was down there, watched what happened. They hit the ground at the same time.
That story may be a legend - though it was first told by someone who knew him well—but it's a legend that points towards a truth.We know for certain that he attempted lots of adventures in looking that were just as decisive. He looked at stars and planets and the way cannonballs fell on moving ships - and changed the mind of man as he did. We call it the experimental method, and if science had an essence, that would be it.
In 1632 Galileo wrote a great book—his Dialogue On Two World Systems. It's one of the best books ever written because it's essentially a record of a temperament, of a kind of impatience and irritability that leads men to drop things from towers and see what happens when they fall. He invented a dumb character for the book named Simplicio and two smart ones to argue with him. The joke is that Simplicio is the most erudite of the three—the dumb guy who thinks he's the smart guy (the original half-bright guy), who's read a lot but just repeats whatever Aristotle says. He's erudite and ignorant.
Galileo wasn't naive about experiments. He always emphasises the importance of looking for yourself. But he also wants to convince you that sometimes it's important not to look for yourself, not just to trust your own eyes, and that you have to work to understand the real meaning of what you're seeing.But on every page of that wonderful book, he's trying to imagine a decisive test - dropping a cannonball from a ship's mast, or digging a hole in the ground and watching the Moon—to help you argue your way around the universe.
 There's a lovely moment, it could be the motto of the scientific revolution, when Salviati, one of his alter egos, says, “Therefore Simplicio, come either with arguments and demonstrations and bring us no more Texts and authorities, for our disputes are about the Sensible World, and not one of Paper.”
Such alone describes why Galileo still matters today;  arguments based on abstract ideas, unproven, remain so—paper arguments. What Galileo did for science and humanity is take abstract ideas and prove them experimentally, giving the world the Scientific Method, still in use today. Its importance as a tool of science and modernity is without dispute.

And, again, the Method can unravel old ideas and replace them with new ones, often met with strenuous objection from the scientific community. Scientists are all-too-human, and they too have "faith" in certain prevailing ideas, giving comfort where it can be found. But science and its method is there for the rescue; science is an auto-correcting process, which cannot be denied, another of its known strengths. Science is democracy in action.

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You can read the rest of the article at [BBC News]

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