Thursday, August 19, 2010

Science Isn’t in a Vacuum

As I mentioned before, the reading list during my “recovery” included Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace. In the chapter discussing non-name Theodr Kaluza’s harmonization of Riemann’s, Maxwell’s, and Einstein’s work, Kaku explains how historians of science neglect to appreciate how unrevolutionary it was:

Given the continuity of physics research, these historians are startled to find a new avenue of science opening up without any historical precedent. But their amazement is probably due to their unfamiliarity with the nonscientific work of the mystics, literati, and avante garde. A closer look at the cultural and historical setting shows the Kaluza’s work was not such an unexpected development. As we have seen, because of Hinton, Zollner, and others, the possible existence of higher dimensions was perhaps the single most popular quasi-scientific idea circulating within the arts. From this larger cultural point of view, it was only a matter of time before some physicist took seriously Hinton’s widely known idea…[T]he work of Riemann pollinated the world of arts and letters via Hinton and Zollner, and then probably cross-pollinated back into the world of science through the work of Kaluza. (pp. 103-104)

This relationship between scientific study and the “real world” wasn’t entirely new to me. When writing a paper on the 1900 San Francisco outbreak of the Bubonic plague,* I studied Alexandre Yersin’s research in Hong Kong a few years earlier. As part of the Pasteur Institute, it’s no surprise that he purposefully searched for a bacterium to fault, but what amazed me was how he went about it. He took local superstitions and “old wives tales” seriously! You’ll get the plague if you find a dead rat in your house. You’ll get the plague if you touch a warm dead rat, but not if you touch a cold dead rat. Et cetera. Et cetera.**

What the research on the plague and research on the fifth dimension have in common was foundations in the surrounding culture, and I don’t doubt that there are other examples. The thing to note is that good science doesn’t always outright reject that what was “unscientific.” Instead, it can utilize it quite effectively. And yet there are people who wish to keep science quarantined, forcing it to miss out on all the exciting interactions.

Human observations will continue to lead to new theories and discoveries, so what better to observe than human society in action? And as I mentioned in an earlier post, I am quite optimistic about the current video gaming subculture’s ability to devise ways to stave off nuclear warfare. No previous society has needed to create a wall between science and everything else to make successful scientific advancements. Why should we?

*Spending six months reading medical journals and old San Francisco Board of Health reports did not cure my fright of anything medical related.
**These are the two I remember, and there’s no way I’m going to look anything up right now.