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The Invention of Science

Invention-of-ScienceThe Invention of Science: The Scientific Revolution from 1500 to 1750
by David Wootton
Hardback first edition Published by Harper Collins 2015

Wootton claims there are two major philosophical camps among those who write about the history of science. He calls them the ‘realists’ and the ‘relativists’. The realists regard science as essentially a formalized application of human common sense. To them, science is a systematic method of asking questions about the natural world, which leads to reasonably accurate answers. As these answers build upon one another, collective human understanding grows. It’s almost inevitable. Relativists, on the other hand, see science as an aspect of human culture. Both the questions it asks and the answers it finds are culturally dependent, so it never obtains any objective knowledge and consequently cannot progress in the sense that it gets us closer to a true understanding of what the world actually is or how it works. Instead, it creates stories about the world that work for a particular culture at a particular time. Relativism, he claims, “has been the dominant position in the history of science” for some time (Pg. 117). (This seems odd to me since, of the two extremes, relativism seems the most absurd, but that’s what he says. Since he’s the expert and I’m not, I’m sadly willing to entertain the idea that he may be right about this.)

Wootton sees some merit in both of these perspectives, and this book is his attempt to reconcile them. His self-appointed task can be summarized in these quotes that appear near the end of the book:

The task, in other words, is to understand how reliable knowledge and scientific progress can and do result from a flawed, profoundly contingent, culturally relative, all-too-human process. (pg. 541)
Hence the need for an historical epistemology which allows us to make sense of the ways in which we interact with the physical world (and each other) in the pursuit of knowledge. The central task of such an epistemology is not to explain why we have been successful in our pursuit of scientific knowledge; there is no good answer to that question. Rather it is to track the evolutionary process by which success has been built upon success; that way we can come to understand that science works, and how it works. (Pg. 543)

And this is what he does in an extensively researched and exhaustively documented account of the development and evolution of science. The way of thinking, which we now call science, truly was new and revolutionary. It emerged primarily in Western Europe between the times of Columbus and Newton. Wootton doesn’t claim a single igniting spark, but he gives Columbus’s voyage in 1492 credit for providing a powerful challenge to the prevailing belief that the ancients had known everything worth knowing. Although Columbus himself never accepted that the land he found by traveling west from Spain was a previously unknown continent, others soon came to this realization, and it showed that the authority of Ptolemy, Aristotle, and Holy Scripture were not as absolute as people believed. Here was an entirely new world, with strange animals, plants, and people, which the respected and authoritative ancients had known nothing about. Possibly just as significant was that the existence of these two huge continents was not found through philosophical reflection or by divine revelation. This new land was ‘discovered’ by a bunch of scruffy sailors—commoners!

From here, he explains that these emerging ideas added new words and new (and modern) definitions to old words, such as ‘discovery’, ‘fact’, ‘experiment’, ‘objectivity’, and ‘evidence’. These all have their current meanings because of the scientific way of viewing the world that emerged between the 16th and 18th centuries. (Personally, I think his discussion of the word ‘evidence’ goes into more detail and greater length than needed to make his point, but for those in academia, it may be helpful).

He also shows how culture influenced the development of scientific thinking. More often than not, the culture of this time hindered rather than helped. Prior to the scientific revolution, philosophical disputes were decided through clever rhetoric, creative verbal arguments, and appeals to tradition and authority. Because of this, early practitioners of science felt it necessary to justify themselves by citing the works of long-dead philosophers like Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius. Although none had the authority of Aristotle, they were ancient, which implied a certain respectability. The new scientific way of thinking, on the other hand, “sought to resolve intellectual disputes through experimentation.” (pg. 562)

I am more of an interested observer of science than I am a practitioner, but I have to admit that the realist view seems far closer to the truth to me than does the relativist concept. It is undeniable that science is done by scientists, that scientists are people, and that people are shaped by the cultures in which they live. But modern science originally began by challenging the assumptions of the culture in which it first emerged, and it retains that aspect of cultural skepticism to this day. I suspect that many current scientists are motivated, at least in part, by the dream of possibly overturning a prevailing theory or showing that it is somehow flawed or incomplete. In the 17th century, challenging cultural assumptions could bring a long, uncomfortable visit with inquisitors followed by a short, hot time tied to a stake. Today, it can bring a scientist fame and fortune.

Scientific progress isn’t inevitable, but it can and does reveal culturally independent facts. Scientists are products of their cultures, but the process of science intentionally strives to put those cultural assumptions aside. It may be the only human activity that does so.

Book Review – Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter

EinsteinsLawnTitle: Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn
Author: Amanda Gefter
Publisher: Bantam Books
First Published: 2014
Genre: Nonfiction (Science/Philosophy)

What is real? Really real? Real for everyone everywhere? This is essentially the philosophical question Amanda Gefter is exploring in this truly unique book. It’s part memoir, part philosophy, and part science. It’s a narration of her personal quest to find an answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. It’s a story about how she finagles a job as a science journalist in order to talk to some of the most eminent people working in theoretical physics today, and it’s an exploration of the metaphysical implications of some of their ideas. (Reviewers note to reader: Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the ultimate nature of reality. It’s kind of like real physics, especially theoretical physics, but without all the messy math and testability requirements.)

I write (soft) science fiction, but I’m not a scientist. Relativity seemed rational enough to me (after some mental gymnastics), but many of the implications of quantum mechanics boggled my mind. It could make accurate predictions, but it never really made sense. It was like a superposition of ‘true’ and ‘bat-crap crazy’. After joining Amanda on her search in the pages of this book, I feel I have a better intuitive grasp of entanglement, wave-particle duality, the uncertainty principle, and entropy than those I possessed before. My shaky understanding may still be dead wrong, of course, but at least I have some framework to give these ideas structure now.

This would have been enough for me to proclaim this a great science book for nonscientists. But it has more.

She shows us some of the major physicists of our time not as embodiments of their ideas but as real people who interact with the world around them much as we of lesser intellect do. They have personalities, egos, disagreements, and quirks. They are real people who also just happen to be brilliant scientists. As she related her interviews with them, I thought about young students who might be reading this and drawing inspiration from it. We sometimes put great achievers on pedestals, implying that greatness is out of reach for us ‘normal’ people. Gefter brings them down to earth, showing us their humanity and thereby reminding us that they are not so different from the rest of us.

I think this book also reminds us of the tenuous relationship between theory, experiment, and the ‘reality’ behind them. Experiments yield data and theories provide beautiful equations, but what are they telling us about the underlying reality (assuming there is some)? This seems largely open to interpretation, at least on the quantum level. Yeah, the math works, but what does it MEAN? Is the ‘thing’ found ‘real’ or is it just a data point that tells us about a relationship with other data points from a particular point of view? Apparently, the answers depend on the questions asked, and if those answers seem contradictory, it may be because some of our underlying assumptions are wrong.

Some books about science suggest that scientists are simply fine tuning, adding details to the standard model, and working out a few remaining unknowns, such as the nature of dark energy or whatever. Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, I think, is telling us something entirely different. There are still a great number of things to learn and new theories needed to make sense of them. Science is not almost done. It has barely begun. There remains much to discover and understand.

I found this book informative, thought provoking, and entertaining. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in science and philosophy.

Book Review – The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker

PinkerBAofNTitle: The Better Angels of Our Nature
Author:
Steven Pinker
Publisher:
Viking
First Published:
2011
Genre:
Nonfiction (Science/History/Philosophy)

Has the human condition gotten better over time? In this book, Steven Pinker argues that it has, mainly by showing how dreadful it was in the past. People still intentionally inflict unspeakable harm upon one another, but compared to the atrocities of the past, (some of which, such as animal cruelty, genocide, torture, and rape as a spoil of war, they did not even considered atrocities at the time) we have made considerable progress. In this lengthy book, Pinker provides details, data, and analysis demonstrating his point. At times, it seemed almost too much. Despite the almost painful level of detail, I found this a thoughtful and persuading mixture of history, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. I highly recommend it as a much-needed counter for the mistaken idea that humanity has somehow digressed from an idyllic past.

A True Story of Life, the Universe, and Everything

I recently rewatched Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the TV mini-series created by Carl Sagan, which was originally broadcast on PBS in 1980. I did this partly as research for the novel I’m currently writing, but also because I love this series. It remains my favorite science documentary. When I first saw it over three decades ago, it changed my perception of life, the universe, and everything. That’s a significant accomplishment for a TV show. If you have not seen it, or if you have seen it and wish to watch it again, I urge you to do so. The entire series is on YouTube and (with commercials) on Hulu.

With equal parts of skepticism and wonder, Cosmos presented not only some of the discoveries of science, but also an explanation of what science is, how it works, and how it is different from other methods people have used to try to understand the universe. If I could recommend only one video series for all people to see, it would be this one. It has been sixteen years since Carl Sagan’s death and twice that since Cosmos first aired, but he still speaks to us, or at least to me.

The universe began about fifteen billion years ago. It is difficult, if not impossible, for any person to grasp such a vast period, so Cosmos includes a translation of this into a length of time we can intuitively understand. Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar portrays the entire span of the known cosmos as a single year, with the Big Bang in the first second of January. On this scale, each second represents five hundred years, and all of recorded human history occurs in only the last few seconds of the last minute of December thirty-first.

This is an enlightening and humbling perspective. From a cosmic point of view, we have not been around long, and most of what we have achieved, most of our understanding about our place in the universe, has occurred only in what amounts to a few heartbeats at this scale. To me, this emphasizes not only how brief our existence has been but also how fortunate we are to exist at all. It also implies a certain responsibility to survive and to continue learning. As Carl Sagan once said, we are a way for the cosmos to know itself. It would be a shame for us to waste the opportunity.

The following video is an excellent remix of the Cosmic Calendar. It is based primarily on the first episode of Cosmos, although it replaces some of the original art with computer animation. It comes from the Carl Sagan Tribute Series on YouTube. I invite you to watch it.

Mars Life and the Nature of Science

On 20 November 2012, NPR broke a story that NASA was in the process of discovering something ‘earthshaking’ on Mars. John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the rover mission, was quoted as saying, “This data is gonna be one for the history books.” (See the NPR broadcast here: Big News From Mars?)

The data he is talking about comes from the Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM) instruments incorporated into the Curiosity rover. The purpose of these is to ‘investigate the past and present ability of Mars to support life.’

Because of this, my guess is that the earthshaking discovery is the existence of organic compounds that are strongly indicative of past life or, perhaps, even evidence of present microbial life on Mars. It could be something else, of course. I’m only guessing, but it’s my blog, so I can guess what I want to.

This is a significant difference between the busy folks at NASA and my humble self, a simple science fiction novelist. I can make a wild guess about something like this and share it with the world, or at least with the miniscule portion of it that reads what I write. The people at NASA are more constrained. What they do is science, real science, which means they have to question and test their conjectures before they proclaim them. They also have to try to prove that their assumptions, their expectations, the things they think are reasonable, and especially those things they wish to believe, are not true, or at least not conclusively demonstrated. They have to be careful not to jump to unwarranted conclusions, especially if those conclusions are what they hope to find because this is where we are most likely to deceive ourselves. That’s what real science does. As Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence.” Life on Mars would certainly qualify as extraordinary in my opinion, not in the sense that it is unlikely, but in the sense that it would be the first evidence of life somewhere other than Earth. The chemicals required for life are common in the universe, so the surprising thing to me would be if it did not exist elsewhere. We’ve never found any, though, but then we’ve only just developed the ability to search for it.

Undoubtedly, many dedicated men and women around the world will be spending long hours collecting and analyzing the SAM data, trying to determine what it implies, and trying verify and, at the same time, discredit their own conclusions. This is how science does things. It’s meticulous and inherently skeptical, and it is the best method available to us to know the universe.

I understand that NASA’s conclusions about this earthshaking finding will be released in December. I look forward to seeing them.

The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy

Both science fiction and fantasy present things that do not exist. All fiction does this, of course. That’s what makes it fiction. But science fiction and fantasy include not only imaginary characters and events but settings, creatures, concepts, or devices that are qualitatively beyond our normal, everyday experience. If you are fortunate enough to have a brick and mortar bookstore near you, you are likely to find science fiction and fantasy grouped together in the same section of the store, probably labeled (logically enough) “Science Fiction / Fantasy,” and although they share some characteristics, there is, I think, a clear and unambiguous distinction between them.

Fantasy may be as old as speech. From the time we, well, not us specifically, I mean our ancestors, could communicate more than simple facts, people probably made up stories to explain the inexplicable, like where rain, thunder and babies come from. I’m talking about our earliest ancestors here, not those now living at a ’55-or-older’ community in south Florida, although they probably made up some good stories, too. The people I mean are those who first discovered that they could chip flint to make sharp points to put on the end of long sticks, which they then used to hunt for food and intimidate their neighbors who had wild cave-painting parties late into the night or played their music too loud. I can easily imagine them huddled around a fire, once they got around to discovering that, telling tales filled with imaginary creatures and mystical forces, which remain the defining characteristics of fantasy to this day. Fantasy is as old as mankind.

Science fiction, on the other hand, is a relative upstart, a form of fiction that has its roots in the Age of Enlightenment. Science was an element in fiction as early as the Seventeenth Century, included in works by Francis Bacon (New Atlantis 1617), Johannes Kepler (Somnium 1634), and Francis Godwin (The Man in the Moone 1638). The term ‘science-fiction’ wasn’t coined until 1851 by the English author, William Wilson. The first known reference to ‘science-fiction’ appears in Chapter Ten of his book A Little Earnest Book on a Great Old Subject, but it did not come into common use, apparently, until the 1930’s. I’m not quite that old, so I can’t say I have any first hand knowledge of this, but I have it on good authority that this is true (see references below).

It may be hard for us living in the 21st century to imagine, but people did not always regard the scientific method, that is, empirical evidence obtained through observation and experimentation, as the best way to understand things about the world. In many societies prior to the Enlightenment, reality was what your tradition, king, or priest said it was, and you had a much better chance at living to a ripe old age of about 40 by not questioning them. (The average European life expectancy in the 17th Century was 35.)

According to my old and somewhat tattered copy of Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, (you knew I’d include a dictionary definition in this somewhere, didn’t you?) science fiction is “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component.” In other words, science fiction relies on a scientific foundation for the speculative elements of the story. The tone of such stories was originally a positive one, supportive of a scientific outlook and optimistic about the possibilities science creates. Wilson’s usage of the term in 1851 is in reference to the laudable goal of using science fiction to popularize real science. The best of the genre, in my opinion, still does this.

Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are two of the earliest true modern science fiction writers. Both stretched the bounds of what was known at the time to posit things that did not exist. Unlike earlier, and even much of the other speculative fiction of the time, though, they based their plot devices on extrapolations from current science and technology. Previous visits to improbable lands, encounters with strange creatures, and even fictional travels through time were often the result of a dream or mystical insight. Both Wells and Verne presented their readers with fantastic machines, but these were based on scientifically explained principles. They included strange creatures, but they were natural rather than supernatural, with abilities explainable, at least in theory, solely in terms of biology and evolution.

Fantasy is less constrained. It can include just about anything — magic wands, vampires, dragons, demons, werewolves, genies, talking rabbits in waistcoats with pocket watches, … well, you get the idea. These things just ‘are’ and don’t need to be explained from a scientific, naturalistic, post-Enlightenment perspective. The magical elements must be internally consistent, but they don’t need to be based on known science. If the story includes supernatural or mythological characters or forces that cannot be supported with plausible sounding techno-babble in scientific terms, then it is fantasy. Well known examples would include Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and (my personal favorite) Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.

There are, of course, books that fall into a gray area and even merge these two genres. A term that has been applied to these is ‘science fantasy.’ An example would be Star Wars, which is mainly a fantasy adventure with some science fiction trappings. The fantasy element is the Force, which is described as a mystical ‘energy’ field. The science fiction elements, obviously, are extraterrestrial aliens and space ships, although there is never much of an explanation for how the latter are supposed to work. Another example would be Star Trek, which is mainly science fiction but with some fantasy thrown in. One of the science fiction elements is super-luminal space travel, which the various series explain is achieved through a matter/antimatter reaction creating a warp in space-time. The fantasy aspects of Star Trek include such things as the scientifically unexplained psychic abilities exhibited by Vulcans and Betazoids.

Although there are many exceptions, science fiction stories also tend to take place in an imagined future or futuristic setting while fantasy tends to be set in an imaginary past, often a medieval type setting. This is not always the case, of course. There seems to be a growing popularity for fantasy that is set in current times with stories such as Harry Potter and a plethora of vampire and zombie novels. The possible combinations of settings and mixtures of fantasy and science fiction elements are extensive, and many subcategories of both genres have been identified. I won’t go into these here because they are beside the point of this post, but if you are interested, SF Site put together a good list (http://www.sfsite.com/columns/amy26.htm).

When asked to explain the difference between science fiction and fantasy, Isaac Asimov, the prolific writer of mystery, science, and history but known mostly for his science fiction, replied, “science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not.” (http://www.sfsite.com/columns/amy26.htm) Although I am a great fan and admirer of Asimov, I think this statement is presumptuous because it implies that we know everything that is possible. I’m inclined to believe we don’t.

A distinction I like better was provided by the Canadian science fiction writer, Robert J. Sawyer who I had the honor of chatting with at the 100 Year Starship Symposium hosted by DARPA in 2011. He said, “Succinctly: there’s discontinuity between our reality and fantasy; there’s continuity between our reality and science fiction.” (http://www.sfwriter.com/2007/08/difference-between-science-fiction-and.html) To expand on this just a bit, I believe he is saying that fantasy proposes the existence of things we can’t begin to explain rationally. Science fiction, on the other hand, must present at least some backstory for how such things could exist and at least imply a plausible theoretical explanation rooted in what we currently know. Where did they come from? How might they work? What allowed them to evolve the way they did? Works of science fiction don’t need to answer such questions in any detail. They don’t require elaborate explanations in the stories, but the reader must feel that scientific explanations for them are possible. Somehow, the fictional marvels that are components of the plot or setting must link back to our current scientific understanding of the real world.

This is the key distinction. Fantasy does not require such things to have a basis in known science. Science fiction does. Science fiction, in the original sense of the term, is supportive of a scientific outlook and optimistic about humanity’s ability to use science to explain the universe and create a brighter future. In this respect, it is almost the antithesis of Fantasy, which has a mystical basis, positing the existence of things science cannot explain or, quite possibly, deal with.

To appreciate the distinction between the two genres requires some knowledge of science, of course. Without it, the reader has no foundation for distinguishing between ideas that are plausible, unlikely, or almost certainly impossible from a scientific point of view. You don’t have to be a scientist; you don’t need to have a firm grasp of general relativity or quantum mechanics (I certainly don’t), but you must have some familiarity with the major findings of science and an appreciation for how science approaches questions about the world through careful observation and experimentation. As Carl Sagan once said, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” (Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, 1979)

 This, I believe, may be the major cause of confusion about these two related but distinct genres. Scientific literacy, especially in America, could be better. If readers believe an opinion is the same as a theory or that intuition and insight are as likely to provide as reliable an answer to a question as controlled testing, then they will not be able tell the difference between fantasy and science fiction. Regular science fiction readers may be more scientifically astute than the general population and therefore more likely to understand the difference, although I know of no survey or study that has been done on this. I do know, at least from anecdotal evidence, that many current scientists and engineers were inspired by reading or watching science fiction when they were young, so at least in that respect, there is a connection.

But even people who believe a magic wand is no less implausible than a TV remote control or that telepathy is as likely as reliable cell phone coverage can read and enjoy fantasy and science fiction. Stories from both genres can be insightful, thought provoking, mind stretching and evoke a sense of wonder. Both can take us to strange and fascinating worlds. There is a difference between the two, but you don’t need to recognize it to enjoy the tales. Personally, I would imagine they are more enjoyable if you do, but this is just my opinion. It’s not science.

 

Related Post: More on the Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy (15 Oct. 2013)

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(This article is cross-posted on 1889 Labs – The Future of Fiction: http://1889.ca/2012/04/the-difference-between-science-fiction-and-fantasy/)

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