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Re: In praise of curiosity

by Abigail-II (Bishop)
on Jul 27, 2003 at 19:43 UTC ( #278261=note: print w/ replies, xml ) Need Help??


in reply to In praise of curiosity

Yet every major advance in science and technology was the result of some rule being broken by somebody who didn't believe the limits set by the authorities.

I strongly disagree with this. Could you please point out which limits or rules set by authorities were broken by Einstein, Newton, Archimedes, Euclid, Euler, Erdös, Von Neumann or Knuth, to name a few? Over the centuries, many scientists were directly or indirectly funded to do research, both practical and theoretical.

Many technological and scientific advances came from curiosity. But that's surely not the only thing that make that make science and technology go forward. Luck, prestige, the need to solve a problem, the wish to make a buck, being observant, and hard work are important as well. Man didn't go to the moon because someone was curious about the big yellow thing in the sky and build a rocket. No, the main drive was prestige between countries, and funding by the the "authorities". Archimedes didn't came up with his buoyancy law because he was curious and breaking some rules - no, he had a "Eureka!" moment when trying to solve a problem for his king.

And Galileo? Sure, he came head to head with the Roman church. But his revelation only came because he had a problem to solve: to explain his data.

Abigail


Comment on Re: In praise of curiosity
Re: Re: In praise of curiosity
by gmax (Abbot) on Jul 27, 2003 at 20:24 UTC

    The limits these people broke were those of established knowledge. You don't have to put your life in danger to challenge authority. Just sustain a theory not in line with the mainstream, and you are going to face strong opposition from the ones who have been preaching the official lines for years and feel their authority shaken.

    Let's take Einstein's case. He wasn't even a professor. He didn't start from an academic strong point. When he published his first papers on his relativity theory, he was working as a clerk in a patent office in Switzerland. Before anyone acknowledged his view, he found in front of him a wall of opposition from all the physicists who wanted to stick to Newton's officially accepted theories. Isn't this challenging authority?

    True, it isn't always that dramatic. Sometimes you have just to defy common knowledge to come up with your solutions. Archimedes wasn't challenging any authorities, but Galileo definitely was. He was very well aware that, by defending his theory of earth motion, he was contradicting the Church official line, and as such he could be charged with blasphemy and heresy. He was tried for that, actually, and he had to make a public denial of his theory, under threat of death penalty. The important thing to note here was that many scientists of his period didn't even take into account the possibility of contradicting the Bible. Galileo's first challenge wasn't against the Church but against fear of challenging what in those days was believed to be common sense.

    Anyway, I may have used too strong words to explain my point, but the bottom line is that scientific curiosity is going to challenge something established, be it a tangible authority or a widespread belief. The rule being broken can be as strong as a prohibition to say something contrary to the government or as trivial as going against common sense.

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      Let's take Einstein's case. He wasn't even a professor. He didn't start from an academic strong point. When he published his first papers on his relativity theory, he was working as a clerk in a patent office in Switzerland. Before anyone acknowledged his view, he found in front of him a wall of opposition from all the physicists who wanted to stick to Newton's officially accepted theories. Isn't this challenging authority?

      Sadly, it seems that many science branches did this error: another one I recall was A.Avogadro, who faced a strong resistence to his theories by his colleagues. It took years before that the chemicals of that time to accept the evidence of his results.

      This is an excerpt from a page devoted to Avogadro:

      In order to understand the contribution that Avogadro made, we must consider some of the ideas being developed at this time. Chemistry was just beginning to become an exact science. The Law of Definite Proportions and the Law of Multiple Proportions were well accepted by 1808, at which time John Dalton published his New System of Chemical Philosophy.

      Dalton proposed that the atoms of each element had a characteristic atomic weight, and that it was atoms that were the combining units in chemical reactions. Dalton had no method of measuring atomic weights unambiguously, so made the incorrect assumption that in the most common compound between two elements, there was one atom of each.

      . . .

      In 1811, Avogadro published an article in Journal de physique that clearly drew the distinction between the molecule and the atom. He pointed out that Dalton had confused the concepts of atoms and molecules. The "atoms" of nitrogen and oxygen are in reality "molecules" containing two atoms each. Thus two molecules of hydrogen can combine with one molecule of oxygen to produce two molecules of water.

      . . .

      The work of Avogadro was almost completely neglected until it was forcefully presented by Stanislao Cannizarro at the Karlsruhe Conference in 1860. ... The reason for the earlier neglect of Avogadro's work was probably the deeply rooted conviction that chemical combination occurred by virtue of an affinity between unlike elements. ... The idea that two identical atoms of hydrogen might combine into the compound molecular hydrogen was abhorrent to the chemical philosophy of the early nineteenth century.

      Surely, the "rule being broken" is such a brake to knowledge and research in general. Anyway, thanks for clarifying your thoughts. I was sure you simply picked the wrong example :-)

      Ciao!
      --bronto


      The very nature of Perl to be like natural language--inconsistant and full of dwim and special cases--makes it impossible to know it all without simply memorizing the documentation (which is not complete or totally correct anyway).
      --John M. Dlugosz
        My apologies for entering late, but I would like to point out that the kind of resistance that you are talking about is the kind talked about in Kuhn's theory of paradigm shifts.

        Given that the resistance in question is part of being part of a dominant paradigm, and that a science cannot make concrete progress without agreeing on a paradigm to function in, I would not call the tendancy in normal times to resist ideas that don't fit the dominant paradigm necessarily counterproductive. (However counterproductive it may have been in specific instances.)

        For every positive contribution that you can name which was rejected because it did not fit with existing authority, there are thousands of cranks who were also rejected. And many of the ideas which we first find presented outside of science were presented at a time or place where they couldn't be tested. When science was ready to address them, they were addressed. As wonderful as the principle of constantly being willing to start fresh may seem, it doesn't work so well in practice. Pre-emptive filtering of some kind is an unfortunate necessity.

        An incidental note. Did you know that Einstein's PhD thesis compared and contrasted different ways of measuring Avagadro's Number? Indeed the fact that so many different methods of measurement lead to the same number was one of the arguments that atoms were real. Another note, Einstein's scientific work became accepted by scientists fairly quickly. The major rejection of his work that is worthy of note was the Nazi rejection, and that was motivated by race, not established scientific authority.

Re: Re: In praise of curiosity
by chaoticset (Chaplain) on Jul 28, 2003 at 04:56 UTC


    Man didn't go to the moon because someone was curious about the big yellow thing in the sky and build a rocket. No, the main drive was prestige between countries, and funding by the the "authorities".
    Ech -- that's why the funding showed up, sure. Money could explain plenty, even perhaps why scientists were designing and mission controllers were expending such great effort. They didn't want to lose their jobs, or they had a nice steady income, or they wanted the (relative) prestige that comes with working somewhere like that.

    You might even argue that some of the first few humans who went up in space vehicles did so because they were motivated by prestige. It could be argued, but I wouldn't believe it. People have a tendency to look for easy jobs if all they care about is the money, and it's a hell of a lot easier for them to stay right on the nice safe ground instead of getting in that odd-looking thing with the "controlled" detonation device on the rear end. There's plenty of research that you can do right here on Earth, and there's plenty of extremely delicate instruments you could ship to the Moon for getting data with. The reason the money showed up was prestige, and the reason the scientific community went with it could perhaps be the same.

    Maybe some went up for the sake of prestige, but I find it hard to believe that nobody, not one single astronaut, willingly climbed into something that would very well kill them except for one thing: They wanted to see the Earth as no one else had, and the Moon beneath their feet.

    There's not any one thing that makes a scientific advancement, but these curious people have to be around, or else you don't find truly obtuse techniques. They have to do crazy things, sometimes at great personal risk, or else there's 'regular' or even slow progress.

    Besides, if someone's funded to do research, it doesn't mean that they're not curious. It means they got lucky, that the local economy either valued the specific thing they were researching or, for whatever reason, valued scientific research as its own goal. (Rare, sure, but it happens.) If a scientist gets paid to research something they don't care about, sometimes they end up putting the funds towards their research in something they do care about.

    -----------------------
    You are what you think.

      Personally, I see it as a military motivation ... not the scientists but Kennedy and the politicians who approved the funding. If you can get your weapons to a high place, all you have to do is let go and watch them fall on people. And if you can get a camera higher than a U2 can go, you can see anything you want.

      --
      TTTATCGGTCGTTATATAGATGTTTGCA

        Military motivation is right. There would have been _no_ US space program if they hadn't 'stolen' the Third Reich's rocketry program.

        Jasper


        I don't care about the government's motivation. The government will do the same damn dumb things every damn government's done from the beginning of time to the end, because that's what governments do -- safe, dumb things.

        My concern is the motivation of each astronaut to do something that had a relatively high risk of death. Prestige will only make you risk so much -- and then you must be motivated by something else.

        -----------------------
        You are what you think.

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