Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 28th, 2015

The art of guessing

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Jacob Bronowski

How does the outstanding scientist come to propose such a decisive axiom, while less imaginative minds go on tinkering with the old system? How did Gregor Mendel leap to conceive the statistical axioms of genetics? What moved Albert Einstein to make the constancy of the speed of light not a consequence but an axiom in the construction of relativity?

An obvious answer is that the great mind, like the small, experiments with different alternatives, works out their consequences for some distance, and thereupon guesses (much like a chess player) that one move will generate richer possibilities than the rest. But this answer only shifts the question from one foot to the other. It still remains to ask how the great mind comes to guess better than another, and to make leaps that turn out to lead further and deeper than yours or mine.

We do not know; and there is no logical way in which can know, or can formalize the pregnant decision. The step by which a new axiom is added cannot itself be mechanized. It is a free play of the mind, an invention outside the logical processes. This is the central act of imagination in science, and it is in all respects like any similar act in literature. In this respect, science and literature are alike: in both of them, the mind decides to enrich the system as it stands by an addition which is made by an unmechanical act of free choice.

Jacob Bronowski

Written by nevalalee

March 28, 2015 at 7:30 am

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