The Search for Solutions
It is generally believed that something called Science is an influence that has transformed human life in the last two centuries, but what is the nature of this agency that has such great power? Practicing scientists are often unwilling even to try to define it. If they make the attempt they come up with very different answers according to the type of work that they do. Those who are concerned with fundamental research think of science as discovery and may give a definition quite different from that of technologists. Does science consist in the discovery of new facts and ideas or the application of them in human affairs? And if it is both of these, which comes first? Did navigators discover the compass or was it vice versa?
A further difficulty is the tremendous differences in the theoretical and practical methods that are used in the various sciences. There would probably not be much agreement on a definition between a psychologist and a nuclear physicist. The technology of satellites is quite different from that of agriculture—yet we call both scientific.
Clearly all these scientists use activities of the brain, and it would be very satisfactory if we could specify the particular nervous processes that are at work. Unfortunately neuroscience is still in a very primitive state. The physiologists who study nerve fibers and reflex actions can hardly even imagine that they could ever tell us what goes on in the brain when a person solves a mathematical problem. Nevertheless it is useful to consider what would be involved if our successors ever come to be able to discuss the question of the nature of science in terms that are themselves scientific. The very mention of this possibility itself raises puzzling questions about the nature of knowledge. The problems involved seem to be those that might be disentangled by the brains of philosophers rather than of scientists, which leaves us in a fine muddle.
Perhaps if we want to know what science is it may be better to look at it in operation, rather than analytically. This is in effect what Horace Freeland Judson has done by recounting the history of a large number of scientific discoveries. These are grouped to illustrate a set of themes that are prominent in scientific work, such as pattern, change, chance, and prediction. He is therefore very much interested in ideas and theories as well as facts. Indeed a general theme of the book is that science consists in discovering the relations between things. There is much emphasis on questions of mapping and modeling. But the layman, for whom the book is intended, will probably enjoy chiefly the accounts of the phenomena and processes that are described. Moreover there are many beautiful colored pictures. The general effect of the book is thus to give something of the atmosphere or “feel” of science, without having to go through the painful process of detailed technical study. It is a method that will appeal to many people …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.