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Cheap Thoughts on Science


Science and Progress


Quite in general, it is not the case that, because science has changed its mind in the past, therefore it might change its mind again in any direction and by any amount.
     Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and the
     Myth of the Scientific Method (1992)


The metric system did not really catch on in the States, unless you count the increasing popularity of the nine-millimeter bullet.
     Dave Barry


In spite of some of its early mistakes, science is found to be overwhelmingly cumulative rather than revolutionary, building a body of permanent knowledge, most of it very recent.
     Alan Cromer, Uncommon Sense: The
     Heretical Nature of Science (1993)


For we convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.
     Albert Einstein, Albert Einstein and Michele Besso:  Correspondence 1903-1955 (P. Speziali, ed., 1972)


Science is said to proceed on two legs, one of theory (or, loosely, of deduction) and the other of observation and experiment (or induction). Its progress, however, is less often a commanding stride than a kind of halting stagger — more like the path of the wandering minstrel than the straight-ruled trajectory of a military marching band. The development of science is influenced by intellectual fashions, is frequently dependent upon the growth of technology, and in any case, seldom can be planned far in advance, since its destination is usually unknown.
     Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way (1988)


And yet the more we know about the universe, the more we come to see how little we know. When the cosmos was thought to be but a tidy garden, with the sky its ceiling and the earth its floor and its history coextensive with that of the human family tree, it was still possible to imagine that we might one day comprehend it in both plan and detail. That illusion can no longer be sustained. We might eventually obtain some sort of bedrock understanding of cosmic structure, but we will never understand the universe in detail; it is just too big and varied for that. ... As the physician Lewis Thomas writes, "The greatest of all the accomplishments of twentieth-century science has been the discovery of human ignorance."
     Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way (1988)


It is widely though erroneously supposed that science has to do with explaining everything, and that unexplained phenomena therefore upset scientists by threatening the hegemony of their world view. The technician in the white lab coat in the low-budget movie slaps palm to forehead when confronted with something novel, gasping, "But . . . there's no explanation for this!" Actually, of course, any worthy scientist will rush to embrace the unexplained, for without it science would get nowhere. It is the grand, mystical systems of thought, couched in terminologies too vague to be wrong, that explain everything and seldom err and do not grow.
     Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way (1988)


Suppose Galileo were here and we were to show him the world today and try to make him happy, or see what he finds out. And we would tell him about the questions of evidence, those methods of judging things which he developed. And we would point out that we are still in exactly the same tradition, we follow it exactly — even to the details of making numerical measurements and using those as one of the better tools, in the physics at least. And that the sciences have developed in a very good way directly and continuously from his original ideas, in the same spirit he developed. And as a result there are no more witches and ghosts.
     Richard Feynman, "What Is and What Should Be the Role of Scientific
     Culture in Modern Society" (Galileo Symposium, Italy, 1964)
     reprinted in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short
     Works of Richard P. Feynman
(Jeffrey Robbins, ed., 1999)


If we do not chronicle, and respect, the medieval sources and character of Leonardo's thought, we will never understand him or truly appreciate his transforming ideas. All great science, indeed all fruitful thinking, must occur in a social and intellectual context — and contexts are just as likely to promote insight as to constrain thought. History does not unfold along a line of progress, and the past was not just a bad old time to be superseded and rejected for its inevitable antiquity.
     Stephen Jay Gould, "The Upwardly Mobile Fossils
          of Leonardo's Living Earth"
     Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (1998)


Almost everyone agrees that finding the T.O.E. would in no way mean that psychology, biology, geology, chemistry, or even physics had been solved or in some sense subsumed.  The universe is such a wonderfully rich and complex place that the discovery of the final theory, in the sense we are describing here, would not spell the end of science.  Quite the contrary:  The discovery of the T.O.E. — the ultimate explanation of the universe at its most microscopic level, a theory that does not rely on any deeper explanation — would provide the firmest foundation on which to build our understanding of the world.  Its discovery would mark a beginning, not an end.  The ultimate theory would provide an unshakable pillar of coherence forever assuring us that the universe is a comprehensible place.
     Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe:  Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions,
          and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory


Physicists spend a large part of their lives in a state of confusion.  It’s an occupational hazard.  To excel in physics is to embrace doubt while walking the winding road to clarity.  The tantalizing discomfort of perplexity is what inspires otherwise ordinary men and women to extraordinary feats of ingenuity and creativity; nothing quite focuses the mind like dissonant details awaiting harmonious resolution.  But en route to explanation — during their search for new frameworks to address outstanding questions — theorists must tread with considered step through the jungle of bewilderment, guided mostly by hunches, inklings, clues, and calculations.  And as the majority of researchers have a tendency to cover their tracks, discoveries often bear little evidence of the arduous terrain that’s been covered.  But don’t lose sight of the fact that nothing comes easily.  Nature does not give up her secrets lightly.
     Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos:  Space,
          Time, and the Texture of Reality


The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land, to add something to the extent and solidity of our possessions.
     Thomas Henry [T. H.] Huxley, "On the Reception
     of the Origin of Species" (1887)


Our science is a drop, our ignorance a sea.
     William James


In the 1990s the United States, not to be left too far behind, is inching toward the metric system.
     Leon Lederman, The God Particle: If the Universe is the
     Answer, What is the Question? (with Dick Teresi, 1993)


The ballast of factual information, so far from being just about to sink us, is growing daily less. The factual burden of a science varies inversely with its degree of maturity. As a science advances, particular facts are comprehended within, and therefore in a sense annihilated by, general statements of steadily increasing explanatory power and compass — whereupon the facts need no longer be known explicitly, that is, spelled out and kept in mind. In all sciences we are being progressively relieved of the burden of singular instances, the tyranny of the particular. We need no longer record the fall of every apple.
     Peter Medawar, "Two Conceptions of Science"
     (Encounter 143, August 1965)


The scientist values research by the size of its contribution to that huge, logically articulated structure of ideas which is already, though not yet half built, the most glorious accomplishment of mankind.
     Peter Medawar, "Two Conceptions of Science"
     (Encounter 143, August 1965)


We wring our hands over the miscarriages of technology and take its benefactions for granted. We are dismayed by air pollution but not proportionately cheered up by, say, the virtual abolition of poliomyelitis.
     Peter Medawar, On "the Effecting of All Things Possible" (1969)


Advances in medicine and the possibilities of human happiness created by the relief of suffering are a great embarrassment to those determined to think nothing but evil of science and technology. Their only recourse is to point to the population problem as the direct consequence of medicine and medical technology and to say or imply that modern drugs cause as many ailments as they cure. In spite of these dissonant voices, most people believe as we do that medical science has a moral credit balance.
     Peter Medawar, "Some Reflections on Science and Civilization" (1972)


I feel that what distinguishes the natural scientist from laymen is that we scientists have the most elaborate critical apparatus for testing ideas: we need not persist in error if we are determined not to do so.
     Peter Medawar, "The Philosophy of Karl Popper" (1977)


The notion that science does not concern itself with first causes — that it leaves the field to theology or metaphysics, and confines itself to mere effects — this notion has no support in the plain facts. If it could, science would explain the origin of life on earth at once — and there is every reason to believe that it will do so on some not too remote tomorrow. To argue that gaps in knowledge which will confront the seeker must be filled, not by patient inquiry, but by intuition or revelation, is simply to give ignorance a gratuitous and preposterous dignity.
     H. L. Mencken, 1930


When in doubt, cause as much confusion as you can, and, with luck, there'll always be a loophole.
     Richard Mueller


Science has a way of getting us to the future without consulting the futurists and visionaries.
     Robert L. Park, Voodoo Science: The Road
     from Foolishness to Fraud (2000)


Parkinson's Sixth Law: The progress of science varies inversely with the number of journals published.
     Cyril Northcote Parkinson


The corrections to Newton's laws called for by Special Relativity are negligible for almost all purposes but the understanding that makes the world so much more interesting than it was at the beginning of the 20th century.
     Gerard Piel, The Age of Science: What Scientists
     Learned in the 20th Century


The simplest schoolboy is now familiar with truths for which Archimedes would have given his life.
     Ernest Renan, Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse (1883)


Principle of Literary Oversight: Textbooks may be straightforward and succinct, but the path of science is crooked and tortuous.
     Tony Rothman, Instant Physics: From
     Aristotle to Einstein, and Beyond (1995)


You only arrive at the right answer after making all possible mistakes. The mistakes began with the Greeks.
     Tony Rothman, Instant Physics: From
     Aristotle to Einstein, and Beyond (1995)


A theory is accepted only when the last of its opponents dies off. The Copernican Revolution was a great shift in mankind's thinking, but did not take place overnight.
     Tony Rothman, Instant Physics: From
     Aristotle to Einstein, and Beyond (1995)


... one result of unimaginative, mechanistic thinking was that societies eventually ceased to burn people at the stake for witchcraft.
     Tony Rothman & George Sudarshan, Doubt and Certainty (1998)


Science is an attempt, largely successful, to understand the world, to get a grip on things, to get hold of ourselves, to steer a safe course. Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.
     Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World:
     Science As A Candle in the Dark (1995)


Scientific activity is the only one which is obviously and undoubtedly cumulative and progressive.
     George Alfred Leon Sarton, The History of Science
     and the History of Civilization (1930)


Science is not the place for those who want certainty, who wish the truths they learned in childhood to reassure them in their old age. Surprises occur, and alter our perception of reality — for example, the discovery of radioactivity or the genetic role of DNA. ... When we treat each new observation and theory with skepticism, retaining our doubt until it has passed the test of experience, and then place it alongside our other acquisitions with the care of a collector who has acquired a valued object after a long search, then we can experience the joy of science. It is this joy, rather than an insistence on an immediate answer, that is likely to be our reward as we continue to search for the origin of life. But even in this conclusion, let us exercise some caution. We may be closer to the answer than we think.
     Robert Shapiro, Origins: A Skeptic's Guide
     to the Creation of Life on Earth (1986)


Some see the fragility of scientific theory as an indication of a basic inability of science to explain the universe. But scientific change is almost always accompanied by an increase in our ability to rationalize and predict the course of nature. Newton could explain far more than Aristotle, Einstein far more than Newton. Science frequently stumbles, but it gets up and carries on. The road is long.
     Brian L. Silver, The Ascent of Science (1998)


A final thought. The two most self-confident activities of mankind are religion and politics. No one is surer of himself than a believer. This self-confidence is based on a fundamental rigidity, a stubborn refusal to really hear the other side, to admit for one moment that there might be something basically wrong with the accepted dogma. A believer may be prepared to say that we are all the children of one God, but he doesn't usually switch from Islam to Catholicism. Science, on the other hand, is completely open-minded — despite the history of inertia. Any monument can be demolished, any belief forsaken. It is exactly this liberating acceptance of the possibility that our minds can mislead us that underlies the magnificent successes of science. Scientists are not invariably ecstatic when their scientific beliefs are undercut by better theories or new facts. But in the end, the scientific community gives in to change because, on the average, we refuse to be irrational — or to be seen to be irrational by our colleagues. It is the (reluctant!) willingness to be shown to be wrong that has so often led us in the direction of being partially right. Science, like art, is continually seeing the world anew. This is part of the joy of science.
     Brian L. Silver, The Ascent of Science (1998)


I have learned that obtaining new knowledge is not easy and that we shouldn't expect it to be easy. All the easy stuff was discovered a long time ago. Today, new knowledge is accumulated only through the greatest effort and concentration of resources, often by teams of hundreds of scientists.
     Victor J. Stenger, Physics and Psychics: The Search
     for a World Beyond the Senses (1990)


Science is as sorry as you are that this year's science is no more like last year's science than last year's was like the science of twenty years gone by. But science cannot help it. Science is full of change. Science is progressive and eternal. The scientists of twenty years ago laughed at the ignorant men who had groped in the intellectual darkness of twenty years before. We derive pleasure from laughing at them.
     Mark Twain, "A Brace of Brief Lectures on Science" (1871)


The surest way for a nation's scientific men to prove that they were proud and ignorant was to claim to have found out something fresh in the course of a thousand years or so. Evidently the peoples of this book's day regarded themselves as children, and their remote ancestors as the only grown-up people that had existed. Consider the contrast: without offense, without over-egotism, our own scientific men may and do regard themselves as grown people and their grandfathers as children. The change here presented is probably the most sweeping that has ever come over mankind in the history of the race. It is the utter reversal, in a couple of generations, of an attitude which had been maintained without challenge or interruption from the earliest antiquity. It amounts to creating man over again on a new plan; he was a canal-boat before, he is an ocean greyhound to-day. The change from reptile to bird was not more tremendous, and it took longer.
     Mark Twain, "A Majestic Literary Fossil" (1890)


Science is a match that man has just got alight. He thought he was in a room — in moments of devotion, a temple — and that his light would be reflected from and display walls inscribed with wonderful secrets and pillars carved with philosophical systems wrought into harmony. It is a curious sensation, now that the preliminary splutter is over and the flame burns up clear, to see his hands and just a glimpse of himself and the patch he stands on visible, and around him, in place of all that human comfort and beauty he anticipated — darkness still.
     H. G. Wells, "The Rediscovery of the Unique"
     (The Fortnightly Review, N. S. 50, July 1891)


Nothing is more curious than the self-satisfied dogmatism with which mankind at each period of its history cherishes the delusion of the finality of its existing modes of knowledge.
     Alfred North Whitehead


There is no natural phenomenon that is comparable with the sudden and apparently accidentally timed development of science, except perhaps the condensation of a super-saturated gas or the explosion of some unpredictable explosives. Will the fate of science show some similarity to one of these phenomena?
     Eugene Paul Wigner, "The Limits of Science" (Proceedings
     of the American Philosophical Society
, v. 94, #5, 1950)


The progress of science is often affected more by the frailties of humans and their institutions than by the limitations of scientific measuring devices. The scientific method is only as effective as the humans using it. It does not automatically lead to progress.
     Steven S. Zumdahl