Tuesday, 12 August 2008

It's Revolution, Baby

Science is usually portrayed and imagined as one of two clichés. The scientific establishment is a vast panel of crusty old sceptics, dismissive of innovative thinking and ever willing to attack upstarts. On the flip side of this, “revolutionary” science is so frequently fanfared to the front pages of newspapers that we could almost believe that scientists are as excitable and credulous as the tabloids appear to be. Everyone loves a David and Goliath story, so it is hardly surprising that every controversial finding is pounced upon. Miracle cures and perpetual motion machines are all the more exciting when it appears that they show up those stuffy old boffins. Strange how the rebels and their miracles most often vanish without further updates. With so many contradictory findings being touted each week, it’s easy to see why so many people become disillusioned with science. Going by the newspapers, I’m still not sure if my coffee addiction is going to give me a stroke or save me from a heart attack. In my previous blog (Science Says) I talked about why I think this happens, and why it’s not actually a reflection on proper science at all. True scientific revolution is another story and an exciting one. Maybe not “tabloid exciting” though.

The best explanation as to How Breakthroughs Happen goes like this. A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to work with a rare kind of scientist. The man, who we shall simply call Oz, is to my mind one of an elite subset of scientists who dedicate their careers to answering a single, if profound question. Oz is also something of a philosophy buff and introduced me to the scientific philosophies of Thomas Kuhn, a man who had a lot to say on the matter of scientific revolutions. On the small scale, science is a cyclical process, as I outlined in First Assumptions. Hypothesise, test, refine, repeat. In time, hypothesis becomes theory or a new part of an existing theory. We can call the prevailing set of theories the “standing model” as they represent a human modelling of reality as we see it. Conferences and the peer review process serves as a rigorous test of the output of the scientific cycle. Scientists are a competitive, aggressive bunch. Attack, until only the truth remains. This constitutes what Kuhn called “normal science”. An overall model, the standing theory is in place, and scientists are filling in the blanks. It is tough work and worthy work. But, as the normal science phase drags on, discrepancies begin to arise.

When Isaac Newton published his theory of universal gravitation in 1687, it represented a fundamental change in the scientific understanding of the universe. It was a true piece of revolutionary science that dismissed theories as old as Aristotle. Once it was put forward and accepted by the community, normal science proceeded. Newton’s theory remained the standing model for over 200 years as the universe was measured and scrutinized using newer and better technologies. The cracks began to show. The movements of some of the planets didn’t fit the theory. The effects of gravity on light didn’t seem to either. And there was more. As always happens, a few contradictory measurements will tend to be dismissed as errors. But as they mount up, efforts will be made to explain them away within the context of the current model. This may well resolve the situation, but for Newton’s legacy this did not suffice. The physics community had entered what Kuhn called a “crisis phase”. The standing theory was clearly inaccurate, yet no theory existed to replace it. New hypotheses were put forward, amongst them the notion that the universe was filled with some manner of “aether”.

In 1905, almost unnoticed, a patent office clerk called Albert Einstein suggested a few things that might help explain how light worked. He demonstrated his ideas via some nice publications which were pretty much entirely dismissed as being a bit strange. A few years later, with a PhD under his belt, Einstein went the whole hog and published General Relativity, a new model that explained pretty much everything that was inconsistent in the Newtonian model and blew the aether out the window. The new thinking was so fundamentally different to Newton’s view of the universe that there was considerable resistance to his new model. As with all new science, revolutionary or otherwise, it had to face the purifying fire of skepticism, particularly from the aether heads. It wasn’t until 1919 that the experimental confirmations finally started to emerge. Einstein’s hypothesis prevailed and within a few years the scientific crisis was resolved. Kuhn called this sort of changeover a “paradigm shift”. The information, the observations, they’re still the same. The understanding has changed. Although the more recent notions of the aether-filled universe was now dismissed, Newton’s theories were not abolished. Instead they became merely a small part of a much bigger picture. Used for simple calculations where Einstein’s equations would be overkill. And so, the task of filling in the blanks in the new model began. Normal science was resumed.

Whilst scientists are often painted as inflexible types sticking to their established knowledge and rejecting change, the reality is that this resistance to change is as valuable as the change itself. It ensures that only the most robust hypotheses become theory. We stuffy boffins are always aware that one day the theories that we hold to may be superseded just as Newton was or may be overturned completely. Almost 100 years later, General Relativity, with additions, is still the accepted model. Yet at the extreme ends of physics the cracks are showing once again. It is perhaps ironic that it was Einstein’s ideas regarding the nature of light that would lead to the birth of Quantum Theory, a model which may one day lead to the next great paradigm shift in physics. For those interested, read up on the Large Hadron Collider. This year it may just prove or disprove a huge chunk of Quantum Theory. I have only a vague idea how, mind you. Physics is witchcraft in my books.

Normal science, crisis, paradigm shift, repeat. It’s a pattern that gave birth to giants of science such as Theory of Evolution and the Galilean model, or such field-specific shifts as the discovery of adaptive immunity. Don’t worry, I’ll probably write about those ones some day. My point is that paradigm shifts may change an entire arm of science, such as Biology, or just a small corner of that arm. Dr. Oz is, to my mind, on his way to heralding a paradigm shift in Biology. He’s in one of those small corners of the field, but the implications of his work speak for themselves. He’s convinced me, at least. The information hasn’t changed, but the way I understand it will never be the same. Let the crisis begin.

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