Thursday, March 10, 2016

Discovery before science

Science was invented by Al-Haytham in the 10th-century, and expanded by other Muslim scholars and Renaissance philosophers through the 14th-century. Since then, science has proven to be perhaps the most productive intellectual tool in human history.

6 simple machines are used to control mechanical
advantage. Complex machines (like a drill press) use
more than one simple machine. All were invented or
discovered before the invention of science.
Yet prior to the 10th-century, people managed to discover and invent all manner of useful things, including many technologies we typically think of as abstract, technical or scientific. These inventions include alphabets, writing, literature, philosophy, mathematics, calculating aids, and controlled chemical reactions like fermentation, metallurgy, gunpowder, and cement (whose lost formula--incidentally--far surpasses the quality we can produce today).

Pre-scientific people invented complex architecture, including massive stonework, and the arch, vault and dome; they developed agriculture and animal husbandry, including selective breeding, the seed that became the field of genetics; they invented cities, plumbing, long-distance water delivery, and sophisticated forms of government, paper money, and banking. Pre-scientific people discovered mechanical advantage, and harnessed the energy of moving water and wind to power mills and sailing vessels.

Clearly, science's incredible later success is clouding our perception of its true nature: science is not the foundational source of human creativity, discovery, invention, and problem solving. In fact, science is just a criterion of truth--a powerful way to test assumptions and hunches, and bend them to useful application. No scientist comes up with their research focus via the scientific method: you come to science with a question that needs answering.

One problem with our current tendency to off-load all of our problem-solving onto science is that very few of us are actually scientists. 1999 Bureau of Labor statistics show that only 3.5% of the total US population worked as a scientist or engineer. Those numbers are likely not much different today. So, in turning exclusively to science for answers, we are ignoring the discovery potential of 96.5% of our human population.

Science's necessary objectivity is also off-putting. People are emotional creatures, yet emotion can have no part of scientific results...or it isn't science. We are now seeing the dangerous results of alienating the bulk of our population: science has become politicized and unpopular, eroding funding and support.

So, where else can we look for creativity, invention and human investment?

The Arts are a tool of discovery, and there is a long tradition of art detecting patterns that inform later science. In the 19th-century, a largely self-taught schoolmaster turned his attention from the Humanities to mathematics. George Boole was a big fan of Aristotle, and had the insight that he could use math to extend and formalize the rules of Aristotelian Logic. In doing so, he invented an obscure new branch of mathematics.

Even other mathematicians never imagined that Boolean Algebra would ever have any practical application to science or engineering. However, decades later in the 1930's, a young mathematics student named Claude Shannon enrolled in a philosophy course at the University of Michigan. There, Shannon realized that Aristotelian Logic, in the form of Boolean Algebra, could be used to describe digital circuits. This insight formed the basis of what has come to be known as "the most important Master's thesis of the century". Shannon's work went on to create the field of Information Theory, which profoundly influenced such diverse intellectual disciplines as biology, ecology, physics, electrical engineering, linguistics, philosophy and more. Information Theory utterly transformed society, resulting in the modern telecommunications and computer industries.

So, the foundation underlying the structure of the modern world came from the Humanities. Maybe that alone is reason enough to re-engage arts with science at FSMLs?

Here is an example of an artist using a visualization technique for the beauty and provocativeness of it...

Ground Cloud from Dennis Hlynsky on Vimeo.

...and a scientist using the same technique to make a fundamental discovery:

Hummingbird research at Sagehen from F. Felix on Vimeo.

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