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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Openness and scientific discovery

July 20, 2010

Rod Dreher
July 18, 2010

A colleague mentioned the other day that younger
scientists may fear getting involved with certain
kinds of potentially fruitful research because
they risk hurting their careers by flirting with
what is now scientific heterodoxy. My colleague's
concern is that science itself could be missing
out on new discoveries because of professional
pressure, real or imagined, on younger scientists
to conform to established ideas, for fear of
suffering in their careers. That brought to mind
a passage from "The Quantum and the Lotus," a
book-length dialogue between Tibetan Buddhist
monk Matthieu Ricard, who was a geneticist before
leaving science to become a monk, and Trinh Xuan
Thuan, a University of Virginia astronomer. Excerpt:

Matthieu: Einstein also said, "On principle, it
is quite wrong to try founding a theory on
observable magnitudes alone. In reality the very
opposite happens. It is the theory which decides what we can observe."

Trinh: Charles Darwin, the father of the theory
of evolution, had a revealing story to tell about
that. During his travels he spent a whole day on
a riverbank and noticed nothing special, nothing
but pebbles and water. Eleven years later he
returned to the same spot, but now, owing to his
subsequent studies, he was expecting to find
evidence of an ancient glacier. Sure enough, this
time, the evidence was blindingly obvious. Not
even an extinct volcano could have left more
visible traces of its past activity than this
ancient glacier. Darwin only found what he was
looking for when he knew what he was looking for.
There are countless similar examples.

M.: Scientists also tend to fit new facts into
preexisting conceptual models and avoid calling
into question the fundamental precepts of the field they're working in.

T.: Yes, but, that said, sometimes when new facts
turn up that don't fit into an existing
framework, a scientific revolution, or paradigm
shift, is kicked off. This also happens when
geniuses spot connections between phenomena that
were previously thought to be separate. Norwood
Russell Hanson, a historian of science, remarked,
"The paradigm observer is not the man who sees
and reports what all normal observers see and
report, but the man who sees in the familiar
objects what no one else has seen before." Newton
understood gravity when he saw the link between
an apple falling to the ground and the motion of
the Moon aroudn the Earth. Relativity became
clear to Einstein when he grasped the
interconnection between time and space. But such
imaginative achievements don't happen purely by
chance. They result from years of learning and thought.
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