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Science and Human Values

Science and Human Values

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Published by: tapasmahajan on Jul 22, 2009
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Science and human values
N. MukundaCentre for Theoretical Studies and Department of PhysicsIndian Institute of Science, Bangalore 560012
1. Introduction
It is a privilege to be invited to give this first talk in the series `Dimensions of science',specially to such a distinguished and diverse audience. I am grateful to Professor KapilaVatsyayan and to Professor Rajesh Kochhar, for giving me this honour.The title I have chosen is `Science and human values'. One of the important points I hopeto convey is that modern science is a human creation, a very important component of human culture. In that context it is well to appreciate that it is very young - no more thanthree and a half centuries old - much younger than say drama, sculpture, music, poetry,painting and the like. But already in its brief life science has given us an amazingly richand wide view of nature, a great deal of it in fact being a result of 20th century science.And this in turn invites us to a reassessment of our place in nature.Another important point is that one must carefully distinguish between science on the onehand, and its exploitation or practical applications on the other. But this is not easy. Thetwo are of course closely related, one often being the inspiration for the other, yet theymust not be mistaken for one another. Erwin Schrodinger, one of the most eloquentwriters among the scientists of the 20th century, posed in his book "Science andHumanism" the question "What is the value of scientific research?" and went on to say:"A great many people, particularly those not interested in science, are inclined to answerthis question by pointing to the practical consequences of scientific achievements intransforming technology, industry, engineering etc., in fact in changing our whole way of life beyond recognition in the course of less than two centuries, with further and evenmore rapid changes to be expected in the time to come". But he is not satisfied with this,as he immediately declares: "Few scientists will agree with this utilitarian appraisal of their endeavour". Then after repeating the question in the form, "What, then, is in youropinion the value of natural science?" he answers: "Its scope, aim and value is the sameas that of any other branch of human knowledge it is to obey the command of the Delphicdeity, get to know yourself" Science is an unravelling and appreciation of the workings of nature based on two principles which themselves seem not to be derivable fromsomething more deep - that Nature is lawful, and that with patient careful effort we cancomprehend that lawfulness.At this point I must confess to a weakness - it is that I shall quote liberally from thewritings of many great scientists. But this is justified by what S. Chandrasekar once said,to the effect that even a mediocre talk or essay can be saved by great quotations. By theway he too used them extensively in his beautiful writings. And when you hear a wellchosen piece you will surely feel - how well it is expressed, I wish I had said it myself!
 
 
2. The beginnings of modern science
Let me start with a very rapid recollection of the beginnings and early growth of modernscience. The ground work was of course laid by people like Copernicus, Tycho Brahe andJohannes Kelper. But the two main figures who really launched modern science wereGalileo Galilei and Isaac Newton, together straddling the 17th century. They wereconcerned with mechanics or the description and analysis of the motion of materialbodies, with the laws of terrestrial and then universal gravitation, and also with optics orthe science of light. It was Galileo who declared that the language of nature ismathematics - he said the book of nature is written in mathematical language, and wemust learn that language to understand nature. By their joint efforts the principles of modern science based on observation, controlled experiment, analysis using mathematics,concept and theory making, prediction and testing were clarified. These make up thefundamental methodology of modern science, and they set the pattern for progress in thesucceeding centuries.A very important factor in the background which helped them along was a newphilosophical attitude which encouraged independent enquiry and observation of phenomena. In this context I always like to recall the beautiful description of Galileo andNewton given by Max Born:"The distinctive quality of these great thinkers was their ability to free themselves fromthe metaphysical traditions of their time and to express the results of observations andexperiments in a new mathematical language regardless of any philosophicalpreconceptions".During the 18th century there was tremendous progress in applying Galilean-Newtonianprinciples to wider and wider groups of phenomena. To a large extent it was also amathematical elaboration and expansion of what they had initiated. Some of the mostillustrious names are the Bernoullis, Euler, Lagrange and Laplace - each of them amathematician as much as a physicist. Towards the end of the century the sciences of electricity and magnetism also fell into the Galilean-Newtonian pattern. Then came thebeginnings of modern quantitative chemistry; and soon after the wave theory of light,originally proposed by Huyghens and revived by Thomas Young.Actually the successes of science were already so impressive that they led to a kind of overconfident reaction in more than one way. One was the claim of completedeterminism as expressed by Laplace - if we know the positions and velocities of allbodies in the universe at a certain time, and also the forces acting on them, then on thebasis of Newton's laws the future would be completely determined. Another was theassertion that in the social sphere too everything was completely lawful - "culture isgoverned by laws as exact as those of physics. We need only understand them.. to keephumanity on its predestined course to a more perfect social order ruled by science andsecular philosophy. These law can be adduced from a study of past history".
 
Both of these claims have long since been understood as being excessive. Science ismuch more modest today. The third reaction was more philosophical in content, it was infact an attempt by Immanuel Kant to explain why the physics of Galileo and Newton wasso successful. His idea was that some of the fundamental principles of Newtonian physicsare unavoidable and inevitable ingredients of the way we understand Nature. He includedthe natures of space, time and Euclidean geometry, the law of causality, Newton's ThirdLaw of motion and even universal gravitation, in the list of so-called synthetic a prioricategories of thought. They were imposed by the human mind on nature; and rather thanbeing the results of empirical discovery, nature had no choice but to obey them. A reallyprofound understanding of the situation came much later in mid 20th century, and itinvolved the theory of biological evolution in a very fundamental way. More of this later.
3. Science in the 19th and 20th centuries
The claim that social systems obey strict laws of the kind present in science led to apredictable romantic reaction. One consequence was that then science was pretty muchleft to itself, which helped it to make continued progress. I can only highlight the mostimportant achievements, first in the 19th and then in the 20th century. The sciences of electricity and magnetism matured, the concept of the electromagnetic field was created,and finally in Maxwell's hands in 1865 the understanding of light became part of electromagnetism. Then thermodynamics followed by statistical mechanics grew in thework of Carnot, Clausius, Kelvin, Maxwell and Boltzmann. In biology the theory of evolution by natural selection was put forward by Charles Darwin in 1859, while inchemistry the great systematization of the elements was achieved by Mendeleev a bitlater. In the closing years of the 19th century came a string of discoveries - spectroscopy,x-rays, the electron, radio activity - that would profoundly influence 20th centuryphysics.Let me interject something about technology at this point, especially in the 20th century.As Schrodinger said, the changes due to technology have profoundly altered the patternsof life in most parts of the world, though it is of course unevenly so. In health, foodproduction, communication, travel and entertainment - to mention only the most obviousareas - there is no comparison between conditions in the early 1900's and now. Much of the technology of the first half of the 20th century was based on 19th century Maxwellianphysics; only towards the end of the 20th century have we seen the technology resultingfrom earlier 20th century science. I would like to quote from Freeman Dyson at thispoint:"It usually takes fifty to a hundred years for fundamental scientific discoveries to becomeembodied in technological applications on a large enough scale to have a serious impacton human life. One often hears it said that technological revolutions today occur morerapidly than they did in the past… In reality, the time elapsed between Maxwell'sequations and the large-scale electrification of cities was no longer than the time betweenThomson's discovery of the electron and the worldwide spread of television, or betweenPasteur's discovery of microbes and the general availability of antibiotics. In spite of thehustle and bustle of modern life, it still takes two or three generations to convert a newscientific idea into a major social revolution".

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