Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for January 21st, 2018

The strategy of discovery

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The essential feature of a strategy of discovery lies in determining the sequence of choice of problems to solve. Now it is in fact very much more difficult to see a problem than to find a solution for it. The former requires imagination, the latter only ingenuity. This is the sense of Kosambi’s definition of science as the cognition of necessity. The general advance of science has, in fact, taken place in following out the solutions of problems set in the first place by actual economic necessity, and only in the second place arising out of earlier scientific ideas. At any given time there are usually a set of challenging problems like the doubling in bulk of the cubic altar at Delphi, which involved extracting a cube root, or the finding of the longitude, which led to Newton’s laws, or the curing of the silkworm disease in France, which helped Pasteur to arrive at the idea of the germ theory of disease. The danger in science is that the number of such recognized classical problems tends to be limited. The efforts of scientists, generation after generation, are concentrated on solving them and on elaborating on the solutions.

It is this tendency that has kept science for long periods of its history within narrow bounds. It is by breaking with it and finding new problems in outside life that it expands into new fields. Some of the greatest scientists of the past, like Newton, Darwin, and Faraday, set themselves to find and solve problems according to a plan of their own. Faraday, for instance, early in his career set himself the general problem of finding the connections between the separate forces of physical nature—light, heat, energy, and magnetism—and, taking them pair by pair, nearly completed the program…Viewed in the perspective of evolutionary history, science marks a conscious elaboration of the experience provided by the sensory and motor organs of the body. It extends consciously and socially the unconscious processes of learning, common to all higher animals. An animal can learn by experience; man in using science goes beyond this and experiences to learn.

John Desmond Bernal, Science in History

Written by nevalalee

January 21, 2018 at 7:30 am

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