Thursday, May 17, 2012

Galileo versus Bacon?

Andrew Robinson gives me a kind review in this week’s New Scientist (not available free online, but Andrew has put it on his website here). But he’s not convinced by aspects of my thesis, specifically with the following quote:
“It is [Francis]Bacon’s picture (derived from the natural magic tradition) and not Galileo’s (which drew as much on scholastic deduction from theorem and axiom as it did on observation), that conditioned the emergence of experimental, empirical science.”
Against this, Andrew contrasts Einstein saying that Galileo was “the father of modern physics – indeed, of modern science altogether” because he was the first to insist that “pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world.”

The first thing to notice is that these two statements of what Galileo actually did are entirely compatible, when read carefully. In that sense, Einstein’s comment does not at all disavow mine.

But more revealing is the fact that Andrew has chosen to bring Einstein’s authority to bear. Now, it happens that I am writing about Einstein at the moment, which is reaffirming my deep respect for his wisdom as well as his scientific acumen. But one thing Einstein is not is a historian of science. And that is important not just because it means Einstein made no deep, careful analysis of the evolution of science but because his position is precisely the one that scientists for the past hundred years or more have loved to assert, making Galileo their idol and the model of the “modern scientist”. Historians of science today adopt a much more nuanced position. Moreover, while it is true that in Einstein’s time there were still some science historians who pushed this Whiggish line that I criticize in my book, scholarship has moved on. In other words, while Einstein is so often considered the ultimate arbiter of all things scientific (a role that Stephen Hawking is unfortunately now often awarded instead), this is one situation in which his opinion is decidedly amateur. (I am an amateur here too, of course, but my view is one that many professionals have already laid out. I don't make any great claim to originality here.)

All the same, there is certainly a debate to be had about the relative influences of the Baconian versus the Galilean (or for that matter, Aristotelian, Cartesian, Newtonian and Boylean) approaches to science. I’d hope my book can help a little to stimulate that discussion, and I’m glad Andrew brings it to the fore.

1 comment:

JimmyGiro said...

I think you're both wrong, naturally, as you both link historical scientists as though each begat the next. "Push Galileo, push", and out pops Newton.

Surely they are the products of their respective cultures, and only relate themselves to other scientists of their past as an act of self affirmation. And they pick Galileo, and Hawking, because they are blessed with tragedy.

Newton might think he stood on Galileo's shoulders, but he was really the product of abandoned childhood, coupled with post civil war Puritan England. Maybe he mistook the view from Oliver Cromwell's shoulder?

Think also of the French explosion of science and mathematics, after their puritanical revolution.

My belief is that science comes from natural cussedness. A form of personal insurrection against the stifling orthodoxy of society.