Sunday, April 28, 2013

The rules of the scientific game

While listening to NPR recently I encountered the book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" by Thomas S. Kuhn. This book, which was published in the seventies, is an explanation of how normal science emerges from times of discord between scientists (the so-called revolutionary periods). It also places the practice of science onto a firm sociological foundation, addressing how scientists think and what drives them to pursue their art.

Kuhn's influential work is credited with introducing the word paradigm into science. A paradigm is a set of beliefs which provides some basis for scientists to do their work. For example, in optics, I always assume the validity of Maxwell's equations to explore more esoteric optical phenomena. A paradigm is not just a scientific theory, though. It is a mode of thought that dictates what theories, experiments, methodologies, and instruments constitute valid science.

A particularly enlightening section of the book has been in Chapter 4, which explains why scientists do their work. Kuhn likens science to puzzle-solving, which is an often-used analogy for attracting students to scientific fields. A scientific puzzle consists in rendering coherent observations and theories from some class of phenomena. A scientific puzzle also consists in extending the theory to a broader range of phenomena, like the particle-physicist's search for a Theory of Everything.

What's necessary for this puzzle-solving to advance, Kuhn argues, is a set of rules for ensuring that a solution to a scientific problem can be found. A paradigm thus becomes a useful tool in filtering out what class of observations can even be addressed with the theory. If observations can not be adequately accounted for, then a theory must either be modified or thrown out altogether.

These ideas are important for any scientist wishing to make his or her own scientific revolution. Moving into uncharted waters is very difficult because one must first upend the existing paradigm, which most-likely exists for good reason. But the most difficult part is addressing those problems which lie outside the scope of the paradigm itself. In some sense, a scientist addressing such observations needs to start from scratch. I credit anyone who is explicitly working in these areas of science because they are likely to be shunned by their peers and encountering problems never before rationalized.

I highly recommend this book to anyone working in science, since its discussions effectively remove us from the constraints of our own tools for understanding scientific problems and lays them bare before us, without the hubris that is sometimes associated with trying to rationalize our own mode of thought.