Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Long March Of Modern Science

Scientific Advancement

Galileo shows the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope in this fresco by Giuseppe Bertini [1825-98], dated 1858. The painting currently resides in the Bertini Room, in Villa Andrea Ponti, in Varese, Italy.
Photo Credit & Source: Wikipedia

A book review article, by John Leslie, in The Times Literary Supplement looks at Steven Weinberg’s “To Explain the World: The discovery of modern science.” While we today take modern science and both its fundamental ideas and its ways of observing the world for granted, this was not always the case; it begins with the ancient Greeks, a few thousand years ago, and with all the mathematical theorems that you learned in high school. While these theorems are no doubt important, they are not sufficient in themselves to explain the physical world.

Leslie, a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Guelph, Ontario, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, says that Weinberg’s book traces the arc of ancient view to modern view. To a large degree, the change hinged on how man observed the natural world. The cumulative effect of the changes—acting over a long period of time—influenced or forced the arrival of the scientific method, and with it modern science:
It tells an exciting story. Why on earth did good science take so long to arrive? Weinberg’s answer, the book’s main theme, is that it was so immensely difficult to learn what there was to explain, and how to set about explaining it. Explanation by bringing a wide range of facts under a single theory; the need, often, to state theories mathematically; which principles (looking for simplicity, for instance) were sometimes helpful in arriving at theories – all such things had to be painfully learned. Other principles (such as seeking purpose and the good) called for painful unlearning. At first, even the need to submit theories to observational tests was not grasped by the world’s best brains. For, Weinberg comments, people “had never seen it done”.
The tale begins with Ancient Greece. The Pythagoreans, inspired perhaps by comparing the lengths of harmoniously tuned strings, concluded that mathematics dictated all the laws of the cosmos. In reality, Weinberg points out, mathematics by itself “cannot tell us anything about the world”; we need actual observations as well. Without observational support, Plato declared that the world’s four elements, water, air, earth and fire, were composed of regular polyhedrons. Fire was the tetrahedrons, earth the cubes. Weinberg thinks we should best understand such declarations as “poetry”, not as trying “to say clearly what one actually believes to be true”. “Intellectual snobbery” among the early Greeks often made them dismiss as “not worth having” any grubbily acquired knowledge of the material world. Weinberg gives Democritus no praise for proposing atoms. The man seems to have made no effort to show “that matter really is composed of atoms”. 
Modern science took many hundreds of years to arrive at a form that we today recognize as the child of the scientific method, which has generally benefited humanity. The history of science always raises questions on how we got from there to here, and on how one discovery lead to another, and why one discovery became more important than another. Are there particular times and places that are better than others, where and when the political and economic climate allow or induce great discoveries, great leaps that advances science forward to the betterment of humanity? Is it a matter of pushing the boundaries of knowledge? Is it a matter of dedicated and devoted hard work by brilliant minds?

How important is the relationship between money and science?

Today, very important, but then again this was also the case yesterday. Even so, money and fancy equipment can’t replace good science and brilliant scientists. The history of science suggests all of these mental character traits are necessary, including the necessity to discard old ideas in the face of mounting evidence, It also must be said that science thrives in an atmosphere of openness and collaboration, in societies that are not overly restricted. Although it must be added that the history of science suggests that restrictions has not stopped the advances of science, only slightly hindered them.

If modern science is anything, it is self-correcting. It is facts and not opinions that count the most. Hypothesis becomes theory only after passing through rigorous observational tests, proven true time and time again. Or in other cases, what was true in the past is now no longer true.


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