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What Science Knows And What The Public Knows

On the simplest level, science is knowledge of the world of nature. There are many regularities in nature that mankind has had to recognize for survival since the emergence of Homo sapiens as a species. The Sun and the Moon periodically repeat their movements. Some motions, like the daily “motion” of the Sun, are simple to observe; others, like the annual “motion” of the Sun, are far more difficult. Both motions correlate with important terrestrial events. Day and night provide the basic rhythm of human existence; the seasons determine the migration of animals upon which humans depended for millennia for survival.

With the invention of agriculture, the seasons became even more crucial, for failure to recognize the proper time for planting could lead to starvation. Science defined simply as knowledge of natural processes is universal among mankind, and it has existed since the dawn of human existence.

The mere recognition of regularities does not exhaust the full meaning of science, however. In the first place, regularities may be simply constructs of the human mind. Humans leap to conclusions; the mind cannot tolerate chaos, so it constructs regularities even when none objectively exists. Thus, for example, one of the astronomical “laws” of the Middle Ages was that the appearance of comets presaged a great upheaval, as the Norman Conquest of Britain followed the comet of 1066. True regularities must be established by detached examination of data. Science, therefore, must employ a certain degree of skepticism to prevent premature generalization.

Regularities, even when expressed mathematically as laws of nature, are not fully satisfactory to everyone. Some insist that genuine understanding demands explanations of the causes of the laws, but it is in the realm of causation that there is the greatest disagreement. Modern quantum mechanics, for example, has given up the quest for causation and today rests only on mathematical description. Modern biology, on the other hand, thrives on causal chains that permit the understanding of physiological and evolutionary processes in terms of the physical activities of entities such as molecules, cells, and organisms.

But even if causation and explanation are admitted as necessary, there is little agreement on the kinds of causes that are permissible, or possible, in science. If the history of science is to make any sense whatsoever, it is necessary to deal with the past on its own terms, and the fact is that for most of the history of science natural philosophers appealed to causes that would be summarily rejected by modern scientists. Spiritual and divine forces were accepted as both real and necessary until the end of the 18th century and, in areas such as biology, deep into the 19th century as well.

Certain conventions governed the appeal to God or the gods or to spirits. Gods and spirits, it was held, could not be completely arbitrary in their actions; otherwise the proper response would be propitiation, not rational investigation. But since the deity or deities were themselves rational, or bound by rational principles, it was possible for humans to uncover the rational order of the world. Faith in the ultimate rationality of the creator or governor of the world could actually stimulate original scientific work.

Kepler’s laws, Newton’s absolute space, and Einstein’s rejection of the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics were all based on theological, not scientific, assumptions. For sensitive interpreters of phenomena, the ultimate intelligibility of nature has seemed to demand some rational guiding spirit. A notable expression of this idea is Einstein’s statement that the wonder is not that mankind comprehends the world, but that the world is comprehensible.

Science, then, is to be considered as knowledge of natural regularities that is subjected to some degree of skeptical rigour and explained by rational causes. One final caution is necessary. Nature is known only through the senses, of which sight, touch, and hearing are the dominant ones, and the human notion of reality is skewed toward the objects of these senses. The invention of such instruments as the telescope, the microscope, and the Geiger counter has brought an ever-increasing range of phenomena within the scope of the senses. Thus, scientific knowledge of the world is only partial, and the progress of science follows the ability of humans to make phenomena perceivable.

The development of science as a way of studying and understanding the world, from the primitive stage of noting important regularities in nature to the epochal revolution in our notion of what constitutes reality that has occurred in 20th-century physics.

Science made its appearance before writing. It is necessary, therefore, to infer from archaeological remains what was the content of that science. From cave paintings and from apparently regular scratches on bone and reindeer horn, it is known that prehistoric humans were close observers of nature who carefully tracked the seasons and times of the year. About 2500 BC there was a sudden burst of activity that seems to have had clear scientific importance.

Great Britain and northwestern Europe contain large stone structures from that era, the most famous of which is Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain in England, that are remarkable from a scientific point of view. Not only do they reveal technical and social skills of a high order—it was no mean feat to move such enormous blocks of stone considerable distances and place them in position—but the basic conception of Stonehenge and the other megalithic structures also seems to combine religious and astronomical purposes. Their layouts suggest a degree of mathematical sophistication that was first suspected only in the mid-20th century.

Stonehenge is a circle, but some of the other megalithic structures are egg-shaped and, apparently, constructed on mathematical principles that require at least practical knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. This theorem, or at least the Pythagorean numbers that can be generated by it, seems to have been known throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Neolithic Europe two millennia before the birth of Pythagoras.

This combination of religion and astronomy was fundamental to the early history of science. It is found in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China (although to a much lesser extent than elsewhere), Central America, and India. The spectacle of the heavens, with the clearly discernible order and regularity of most heavenly bodies highlighted by extraordinary events such as comets and novae and the peculiar motions of the planets, obviously was an irresistible intellectual puzzle to early mankind. In its search for order and regularity, the human mind could do no better than to seize upon the heavens as the paradigm of certain knowledge. Astronomy was to remain the queen of the sciences (welded solidly to theology) for the next 4,000 years.

Science, in its mature form, developed only in the West. But it is instructive to survey the protoscience that appeared in other areas, especially in light of the fact that until quite recently this knowledge was often, as in China, far superior to Western science.

No mere flick of a switch would do to open Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition on May 27, 1933: The Genius of Science and the Industry of Man were to be celebrated. A wondering public learned that the miles of neon tubing were set aglow by rays from the star Arcturus focused on photoelectric cells, transformed into electricity, and transmitted to Chicago. These rays, they were told, had left Arcturus at the moment the Columbian Exposition had opened forty years earlier.

But it was not all Science and Learning. The New York Times remarked that "… to some extent the hiatus between what science knows and what the public knows will be bridged. At the same time the average sensual man will have his needs ministered to and will not be asked to strain his intellect."

And where would this average sensual man turn for relief? To the midway, where, at the "Streets of Paris" review, an unknown entertainer called Sally Rand (nee Helen Gould Beck) danced slowly to the strains of Claire de Lune clad only in a coating of white powder and clutching two ostrich fans.

The battle thus joined between Sensation and Thought seems to have been won by Miss Rand: a local reporter noted that "the Adler Planetarium is playing to poor business; 40 men could toss a medicine ball around in the Hall of Science and never bother the customers.… But Sally Rand dancing nude on the Streets of Paris has been jamming the place nightly. " Her salary at the start of the Exposition was $125 a week: by the end of the summer this was raised to $3,000. Progress indeed.



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