… a heterogeneous aggregate

Back to “science is …”

Over the course of history, the activity we call “science” today has developed into several distinct components, following one of the basic trends in all historical processes. This divergence into diversity follows directly from the diversity in talents, interests and personalities of the human beings whose behavior drives the enterprise. A dialectically responsive tendency to convergence is also apparent.

One way to organize our thinking about this development pattern is to think of a core problem or question that emerges as the particular science acquires a name and becomes a title. Martin Rudwick’s new book Worlds Before Adam documents his exploration of the emergence of the science we now call Geology from the activities of various people in the early Nineteenth century, as that science became centered on geohistory as its basic problem. In my teaching over the years I stated it this way: The core question in Geology is “How did the Earth get to be the way that it is?”

If the student of the subject can grasp the the underlying core question then everything within the science becomes at least approachable.  Of course, influencing the student to come to believe that the core question is more than just an academic triviality (Is this going to be one the test?) is a separate issue.

Before listing out some sciences and there core questions, I would note that the core question will not always be framed in the same language by the practitioners of the science and other people. Even amongst the practitioners, there will be strong differences of opinion as to how best to express the core question. There will always be the human interest in hierarchy and status to color the language.

Here is my list:

  • Physics: How best can we describe the world in the language of mathematics?
  • Chemistry: How can we take the stuff we have and make it into the stuff we want?
  • Geography: How can we best describe the world with maps?
  • Astronomy: How did the Heavens get to be the way they are?
  • Geology: How did the Earth get to be the way that it is?

In spite of having read Ernst Maier’s trenchant book What Makes Biology Unique I wont attempt that one.

Physics heads my list, as it would for most people. I think this follows as a direct consequence of the experience that most of us have had of the awesome power of the language of mathematics. But that power comes at a price. If you want Nature to behave according to formula, you have to make special arrangements, as Galileo did. Rocks don’t roll downhill according to the formula. But you can’t unravel rocks rolling downhill on Earth in history without it!

Chemistry is next, because changing stuff around, and knowing what stuff you cannot change (elements), is certainly part of the story of the Earth, not to mention making lunch!

The evolution of physics and chemistry out of its precursors in human experience has been a long process, going back to the development of numeracy and literacy, upon which it is based. The historical question is much newer, and we still struggle with it. It is profoundly counter-intuitive to presume the world of Heaven and Earth have ever been really different from that which was given to us at birth. We can learn that it is OK to kick volley balls, even in spite of the rules, but it is not OK to kick bowling balls, even in spite of the lack of rules. But lesson that require longer than a human life-time can’t be learned from individual experience and are therefore counter to individual intuition.

Next: How did the Earth get to be the way that it is?”

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