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How do scientific revolutions occur?

Published on 12 September 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

How do you get a bright and new idea, or the clever turn of phrase that illuminates your thought? By staring stoically at a well-lit light bulb until by empathy the “outer” bulb ignites the “inner” one? By heroically grappling with the problem in a tryst with will?

Think about if for a second and let me know. I’m sure I’ll gather many totally different methods in this way.

Write a personal tweet? Not bad! But no cigar – unless you work for the US State Department, that is, and in need of attracting attention….

My own is the lazy man’s method. Never tackle a problem head on – indeed I shy away from it, procrastinate, and reward myself by doing pleasant asides, like getting that hot cup of coffee. I shirk from the test of will – tough, like a cat, I come back to it feigning disinterest.

One way is a short and willful slumber: “turbo-sleep”, a technique I developed while driving long distances. As soon as grappling with the problem leads to tell-tale signs of burning in the eyes, spinning head, and restless legs, I know – it’s time to take “forty winks”. I lie down, go over the issue in my head as I plunge toward sleep (sometimes the feeling is literally one of dropping down a chute, which wakes me up refreshed) and 20’ later (or the next morning) I wake up with pretty much the “bright” idea in my head.

Another way is to bring the topic to my friends, and have a roaming discussion about it. For example I give a draft blog entry to read: by the time I’ve finished explaining the inchoate thoughts in it, a few more ideas and better formulations have come up.

“Turbo-sleep” may favor “emergent” behavior of the brain. Social discourse may lead to “emergent” properties of collective thought. Staring reflectively at the light bulb? In my case it never works – it just leads to solitary frustration. I reckon creativity is an “emergent” – and foremost social – process.

It took evolutionary biologists good 150 years to expunge the idea that species “jump”: that a lion can beget a cat through sudden and favorable genetic change. Evolution of species is a messy affair: were you to follow the process through generations you’d never be able to draw the line: lion here, cat there. The old people used to say: natura non facit saltum.

Historians still love “heroic” tales of protagonists saving the world, and scientists begetting great ideas by staring at a light bulb.

Lisa JARDINE’s book[1] describes the Scientific Revolution in the making. This is the period in the XVIIth century when we started to get a hold on the basic laws of physics, when astronomy shed its astrological pretensions[2]. The Royal Philosophical Society took as its motto: Nullius in verba (“take no word for it”)[3] and henceforth shunned faith and logic for observation.

It is worth reading about the Scientific Revolution so as better to understand how even epochal scientific changes come about. Were there lonely scientific heroes who led the way? Ca we draw the line clearly between “before” and “after”?

First – there were always many scientists interacting. They met in coffee-houses, furiously wrote letters to each other, and yes, hated each other, were full of spite, envy, or admiration in turn. Some had a theoretical bend, others tinkered with experiments, and a few acted to spread knowledge. Henry OLDENBURG, the first Secretary of the Royal Society, kept an incredible correspondence with other Societies – today he would be spending his time on the internet informing, asking – and some at the time opined – spying.

Second, they were everything but “rational” – the very curiosity of their mind led them to being at times hopelessly credulous. Many astronomers were also astrologers, and the great NEWTON has a mystical streak in him we would have difficulty to reconcile with his great laws. So they moved wildly from one approach to the other, testing wild analogies, illuminations and intuitions. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it did not – but in the end they (grudgingly or silently) bowed to the facts. NEWTON blundered on comets and tides. Did not stop him – or lower his self-esteem.

What they all had in common, thirdly, was perseverance, if you want: pig-headedness. In all of them failure was prelude to success. Some succeeded, others were overtaken by untimely death and remained minor figures.

Fourthly – they seldom worked alone, though they may have pretended otherwise. BOYLE may be celebrated for his laws of pressure, but it was HOOKE who made a success of the undergirding experiments. That the laws were named after BOYLE reflects social prejudice in favor of the aristocrat.

And I’m not talking of the wholesale stealing that learned minds did from “artisans and low mechanicks”[4] who had evolved through painful experimentation that lasted centuries. One can argue that what we call “scientific discoveries” were to a great extent “professionalization” of “popular” knowledge embedded in practitioners. This pilfering was sometimes ugly, if not downright appalling. Skillful midwives were ousted from their jobs to make room for “doctors” – who did deliveries with dirty hands and spread birth bed fever (it took the “profession” more than one generation to introduce hygiene in medicine).

Fifth: who did the scientific advance was a contingent fact. If NEWTON had died young, others would have taken his place, we would hardly notice the fact. At any one time independent and parallel discoveries abound: scientists were always claiming priority, and each nation had its “genius”[5]. As in the case of Georg MENDEL, truly solitary insights go unnoticed until “the time is ripe”.

Looking at the process, one is surprised by the central importance of “enablers” – in this case scientific tools. Invent a new tool – say the telescope – and observations ensue, better than the previous ones. Centuries-old arm-chair speculations can be resolved through testing. Systemic errors can be detected and explained. Practical needs drive further research – and keep scientists in bread and butter. Louis XIV needed better maps for his wars, so three generations of CASSINI (from Italy) worked on it.

As tools raise the horizon of the possible theoreticians will hypothesize new laws. Practitioners may verify, or object: sometimes they have vested errors in discounting irregularities as noise[6]: arguments fly in all directions. At the end of the day, knowledge emerges. We call the overly messy result the “scientific revolution” and name some landmarks in the process after meritorious men. We see “affirmation bias” in the making. At any one moment there are many conjectures competing for the rank of “theory” of even “truth”. As they are all tested, one wins, the others are discarded. After that, the winner is that famous far-sighted scientist…

Forget heroes, and observe the glory of complex process of discovery as it enfolds.


An epistemological footnote: Thomas KUHN has developed a theory of scientific revolutions[7]. The ensuing controversy has made, and destroyed academic careers. I’m not sure one needs to plunge into the controversy.

If one takes my “evolutionary” analogy at the beginning, and (gingerly) compares a new scientific insight to a “new” species, KUHN is certainly right in arguing that scientific advances do not occur by “saltation”. There is no “heroic” history of science – though there were always brilliant minds involved.

KUHN is then keen to prove that the “new” paradigm is “incommensurable” with the old one – i.e. that the “new” scientific “truth” is certainly different, but not necessarily “truer” than the old one. He is, I suspect, pressing all too much the analogy of evolution.

Indeed, a cat is not truer than a lion – just different. There is no “direction” in biological evolution, with the “better” atop the “lesser” species – which would make us the top of the material “chain of being” half-way between the material and the spiritual. But science is not quite the same thing as evolution. The NEWTONIAN celestial model is not simply “different” from the Ptolemaic model. It is a measurable improvement – I can better predict planetary motions. And so is relativity theory – at least until it met quantum mechanics.

I’d agree with KUHN that the passage from one paradigm to the other is a social process. Scientists have to agree to discard the old paradigm for the new. Some do, other don’t. Because the process is continuous, there is never a line in the sand when the conversion is inevitable. Some will jump ahead – and may do so for base reasons of professional competition. Others may camp on the status quo, and their power base. It ends when the losers die out.

This is all a distraction. All that practitioners like diplomats need to know – and feel on their skin, so they can defend the position aptly – is that “heroic” tales of scientific advance are mostly bunk. Cooperation – between scientists and between theoreticians and experimentalists – is the key.

[1] Lisa JARDINE (1999): Ingenious pursuits. Building the scientific revolution. Little, Brown, New York.

[2] Actually, our astronomical knowledge emerged way back. It was embedded in works, like Stonehenge, and in myths. Myths looks a tall tales to us, because we are no longer able to decrypt the content. For an excellent description of how oral knowledge turned into myth see: Elizabeth WAYLAND BARBER – Paul T. BARBER (2006): When they severed earth from sky. How the human mind shapes myth. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[4] See e.g. Clifford D. CONNER (2005): A people’s history od science. Miners, midwives, and “low mechanicks”. Nation Books, New York.

[5] The structure of DNA was “ripe for picking”: the scientific tools were there and it only needed an un-encumbered mind to read it. WATSON and CRICK were lucky, but had they not been there, PAULING would have discovered it – a year or so later. See: James D. WATSON (1968): The double helix. Signet, New York.

[6] NEWTON derived from observational irregularities that the world was slightly squished. The CASSINIs, who were surveying all of France for Louis XIV, had started their calculations from the assumption that the earth was perfectly round, and did not take kindly to a “theoretician” who invalidated all their hand-made calculations.

[7] Thomas KUHN (1962): The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

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