Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Science in perspective

Helping my son with his higher secondary science and mathematics, I was drawn back to India's best (and yet little known) thought leader-practitioner Prof. D D Kosambi. Thanks to my dad's unique brand of scientific temper as also his expansive library, I was introduced to the genius at an early age. That my son now enjoys the same privilege is more by default than design. His science study vastly improved when he mulled over Kosambi's elaboration in good measure:

Science is nothing if it does not work in practice. Science is direct investigation of properties of matter, hence materialistic. Scientific results are independent of the individual who carries out the experiment, in the sense that the same action gives identical results. Finally, as the search for cause and their effects, science is cumulative: science is the history of science. Every scientific discovery of any importance is absorbed into the body of human scientific knowledge, to be used thereafter. Schoolboys can repeat Galileo's experiments, and first year college students learn more mathematics then Newton knew; the young students must go through much the same mental processes, stripped of inessentials and repeated according to modern points of view when they study. But they do not have to read Galileo’s dialogues, nor the Principia. Here science differs essentially from the arts, for in painting, the modern painter need not study the prehistoric bisons in the cave of Altamira, nor the poet read Kalidasa. On the other hand, we can appreciate works of art and literature of all ages, for they are not subsumed in their successors in the manner of scientific discovery."

"After all, how does science analyze necessity? The sciences are usually divided into the exact and the descriptive, according to their being based upon a mathematical theory or not. This distinction has faded away because the biological sciences have begun to feel the need for exact numerical prediction, while physics and chemistry have discovered that, on the level of the individual particle, exact prediction is not possible as with the movement of the solar system. Both have found the new mathematical technique, based upon the theory of probability that they need. In the final analysis, science acts by changing its scene of activity. It may be objected that astronomy does not change the planets or the stars; is it not purely a science of observation? Astronomy first became a science by observing the changes in the position of heavenly bodies. Further progress was possible only when the light that reaches the astronomer was changed by being gathered into telescope, broken up by passage through spectrographs, or twisted by polarimeters. Parallel observations of changes, say in metallic vapors, in the laboratory enabled conclusions to be drawn about the internal constitution of the stars. There is no science without change."