Monday, July 9, 2012

Great Scientific Experiments

Thomas Kuhn’s work focused on paradigm shifts.  (Reviewed on Necessary Facts, here.) To Kuhn, paradigms define the puzzles that “normal science” pursues.  Kuhn stated that it is not the program of normal science to seek out troubling anomalies.  However, the pursuit of puzzles inevitably leads to just that: the more we discover, the deeper our new questions.  Rom Harré’s overview, Great Scientific Experiments (Phaidon Press, 1981) at once supersedes and supports Kuhn’s thesis.

Of the perhaps millions of discrete experiments recorded in the past 2500 years, what makes some “great”?  Different criteria recommend the selections here. Harré builds several structure to group these twenty experiments by what they demonstrate about methods, theories, and techniques.  Induction, inference, accident, null results, decomposition, and unification are subheads for the experiments of Faraday.  Pasteur, Berzelius, and the others.  Four aspects of Kuhn’s “normal science” appear here.  Harré first grants importance to experiments that are culturally famous to us.  Michelson-Morley is entwined with a paradigm shift in physics.  The second kind “were influential in their own times … and which have continued to reverberate through the subsequent development of a field of study.” Aristotle’s embryology of the chick and Theodoric of Freibourg’s investigation of the rainbow are among those. Elegance is represented by Robert Norman’s discovery of the magnetic field.  Finally, no experiment is truly isolated because all are part of the daily working life of a scientist. Therefore, the works of Faraday and Rutherford are offered as examples of the results of long lines of many small experiments.

Horace Romano Harré (Rom Harré)
is an adjunct professor at Georgetown.
Read his Wikipedia biography
Immersed in the sociology,
Rom Harré has a Facebook page 
and is on LinkedIn.


  Kuhn says that often no agreed standard differentiates theories because scientists adhering to different paradigms talk past each other.  Harré offers three examples of experiments that helped us select from rival hypotheses: Robert Norman on the dip of the magnetic field; Stephen Hales on circulation in plants; and Konrad Lorenz on imprinting.  We know that happy accidents sometimes propel science. Pasteur's famous quote, "In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind." places his work here, along with Ernest Rutherford's study of transmutation.

(That last, too, reflects Kuhn's theory.  According to Harré, we do not know precisely when scientists abandoned attempts at transmutation of the elements.  In Kuhn's terms, the changes in culture we call the Enlightenment reinforced a new view in science that atomic corpuscles are elementary, in a new sense of the word "element.")

Harré’s Introduction explains three broad philosophies of science: inductivism, fallibilism, and conventionalism. The projects here also are evidence of these three in action.  Galileo’s inclined plane is one example of the inductive method (and also but one step preceded by a long line of previous experiments and reasoning).  The insightful experiments of Jacob and Wollman on the direct transfer of genetic material also exemplify the development of a theory by teasing out the causes of known events.

Harré relies as much as possible on original material, quoting heavily, while explaining for conciseness.  Life sciences stand with physical sciences. 

For all of its intended value, I personally found pleasant surprises in several of the works: science as we know it was practiced in the Middle Ages.  (See, also, Stephen McCluskey’s Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe, Oxford, 1998.) Harré points to the theories and practices at Merton College, Oxford, 1328-1350, which served as the basis for Galileo’s investigations.  Even more, characters in modern science fiction often speak of “fields” but the term goes back to Robert Norman’s The Newe Attractive, published in 1581. 

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