Thursday, May 17, 2012

What scientists say about science

Anthologies of scientific quotations are already countless but here's one more. It was about 8 years ago I became interested in science when I attended an evening class in York on the Big Bang, following which Phil & Lindsay gave me Simon Singh’s book of the same title for Christmas. This was 2004. The book tells the history of astronomy; which turns out to be almost the same thing as the history of science itself. It's peppered with wonderful quotes, and that’s when I discovered that scientists are also philosophers.

In proof of which, I'm now going to treat you to my own collection of quotes by scientists talking about science. First a video clip of Richard Feynman describing the scientific method.  Feynman, who died in 1988, was an American physicist and Nobel laureate, and renowned as a spellbinding lecturer. Before PowerPoint, the lecturer’s skill was to hold their audience’s attention with their back turned writing on a blackboard.  The video was shot at Cornell University in 1964.  

This is what he says:  Now I'm going to discuss how we would look for a new Law.  In general we look for a new Law by the following process.  First we guess it.  No, don't laugh, that is the real truth.  Then we compute the consequences of the guess, to see what, if this law that we guessed is right, what it would imply.  And then we compare those computation results to Nature; or we say compare to experiment or experience.  Compare it directly to observation to see if it works.  If it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong.  In that simple statement is the key to science.  It doesn't make a difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn't make a difference how smart you are, or what your name is.  If it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong.  That's all there is to it.

I've put together a 16-page compendium of my favourite quotations from scientists, but in case you don’t have time for that right now here are a few choice ones. First, one more on the scientific method, from Henri PoincarĂ©, French mathematician, 1854–1912:

Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.

The biggest insight I got from Simon Singh’s book was that great scientists are normally very modest about science’s achievements, freely admitting how few of nature’s secrets have been unlocked, and perhaps will ever be unlocked.  Here's Albert Einstein on this theme:

Nature shows us only the tail of the lion.  But I have no doubt that the lion belongs to it even though he cannot reveal himself all at once because of his large size.  We can see him only the way a louse sitting on him would.


Everyone who is seriously interested in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe - a spirit vastly superior to man, and one in the face of which our modest powers must seem humble.

Next Steven Weinberg, American Nobel laureate in physics, born 1933.

The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce and endows it with some of the grace of tragedy.  On another occasion he said:  The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

Some scientists have expressed surprise that the human mind can in fact understand anything about the universe at all.  Einstein (I'm afraid we can't avoid his name cropping up) expressed it this way, that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.  Eugene Wigner had a similar thought when he suggested that it is not at all natural that "laws of nature" exist, much less that man is able to discover them. *

Saving the best till last, what is science for?  Robert Wilson when Director of the US National Accelerator Laboratory, was obliged in 1969 to go in front of a congressional committee to seek government funding for the construction of a particle accelerator. 

Robert R. Wilson at the
Fermilab groundbreaking ceremony
It would be 4 miles long and massively expensive, but he knew the only hope of uncovering the fundamental laws of nature, was to persuade governments to stump up costly kit like this.  Facing that committee must have been a critical moment in his career, and cross-examined by Senator John Pastore, Wilson had to answer the question he will have dreaded: would the project give the USA any advantage over the Russians in the Cold War?  

No, said Wilson.  It has no military application.  He continued:

What it has to do with is: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about.  In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country; but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to help make it worth defending.

Wilson got the funding: the accelerator was later known as Fermilab.  More in my compendium, page 10.

Wilson by the way has an interesting history.  A veteran of the Manhattan atomic bomb project, he was one of those scientists for whom the work raised deep questions about science and society.  In 1945, when Nazi Germany surrendered, Wilson attempted to raise the question at the lab of whether they should continue with their work. He deplored the actual use of the bomb at Hiroshima. He sounds to me like a good egg, and some day I'll write more about him, and other physicists who worked on the atomic bomb.  On page 16, I have quotes from a couple of them.

I'm putting this on my blog now as a sort of tribute to my friend Stu who died last week. Several years ago I showed him an early draft of this collection of quotes and we talked far into the small hours about the philosophy of science, politics, religion and probably much besides.   I was looking forward to showing him my final list, but the day never came. 

* In his 1960 paper The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences, cited in the pdf file though I didn't have room for this particular quote