Tuesday, January 23, 2007

One Thing About Science

So the Guardian asked a bunch of scientists "What is the one thing everyone should learn about science?" I guess I would pick Darwin's theory, as a number of respondents did, because it can be instantly understood yet the implications are vast and not always obvious. You couldn't teach someone quantum physics or even Newtonian physics in a hour, but you could get them bootstrapped into Darwin in that time.

A more original response: science is about making powerful abstractions about the world. Part of doing science is knowing what facts to pay attention to and which ones to discard in order to make a powerful theory. Physics is possible because scientists were able to learn how to ignore friction and air resistance and pay attention to more fundamental properties. Abstractions are powerful and necessary but they leave stuff out, so don't mistake your theories for reality.

Here's a response that amused/annoyed me:

John McCarthy Emeritus professor of computer science at Stanford University, and inventor of the term 'artificial intelligence'

Find the numbers, and compare them. As the physicist Lord Kelvin said in 1883, in a lecture to the Institution of Civil Engineers, "when you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind".

It annoyed me because McCarthy is the inventor of Lisp and cofounder of symbolic AI, a school which mostly ignored numbers and quantitative techniques. Maybe it's unfair to McCarthy, but I blame him and his fellows for letting me feel I could neglect numerical techniques for the longest time, and now I feel like I'm scrambling to catch up.

1 comment:

goatchowder said...

Yeah, but he's got Kelvin to back him up. After all, Kelvin is Lord.