Tag Archives: philosophy

The Most Important Sentence

In his Lectures on Physics, Richard Feynman imagines the following scenario: some cataclysm destroys all scientific knowledge, but modern scientists have the opportunity to pass down a single sentence to future generations. What should that sentence be? What single statement would allow future generations to rebuild science? That sentence, Feynman argues, would state the atomic
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A Modern Recipe for Scientific Revolutions: Inspired by Thomas Kuhn, Condensed by BSR

Thomas Kuhn, world-renowned philosopher and historian of science, published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions while teaching at U.C. Berkeley in 1962. Kuhn took on the challenge of describing the historical and sociological setting of academic scientists, in the manner one would describe, “What is water?” to deep-sea fishes.

Over five decades later, avant-garde researchers still venture down the library rows to borrow this particular book (as shown by its many annotations!). Over five decades later, avant-garde researchers still venture down the library rows to borrow this particular book (as shown by its many annotations!).
Image is the author’s own.

At the time of publication, it was not the easiest medicine to digest for extreme orthodox practitioners of science. Surprisingly, his lessons are extremely relevant in present-day discussions of scientific discourse. (One example is academic publishing, which will be discussed by an evolving manifesto at the 4S conference this October.)
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Alexander wept and science triumphed

Solvay_conference_1927“When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.”

-Die Hard (1988) (Yes, really.)

This recent editorial in Nature (subscription required) complains that truly groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting scientists like Newton and Einstein can no longer exist in the current world of science. The author, Dean Keith Simonton of UC Davis’s Department of Psychology, laments that there are no entirely new fields of science to be founded, nor great breakthroughs to be had from relative laymen. This is not a new argument, but understanding the culture underlying it is critical to knowing one’s context in the larger body of human knowledge.

Source: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/File:Bust_Alexander_BM_1857.jpgI want to take a moment to discuss the idea, and the portions with which I sympathize (the ability of an individual to accomplish something enormous) and the portions I find preposterous (a profound nostalgia.) Ultimately, though, the article helps to elucidate something very important: the great scientific achievements of the past millennium were almost entirely accomplished by people who would, by current standards, still be graduate students or (at most) postdocs. The ever-increasing times before young scientists become independent faculty mean that the current scientific establishment is taking on the structure of a pyramid scheme.
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