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Quest for new scientific approach an engaging tale

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/12/2012 (2678 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THINK of a beautiful thing that someone has made. What comes to mind? A poem, a painting, a song, a dance? What about an equation? Or pa da ab eq a scientific idea?

In the latter half of the last century, much effort among theorists of science was devoted to uncovering and displaying the imaginative side of the scientific enterprise; to show that scientists themselves were creative artists who, in contrast to the stereotype, had human qualities, too.

David Orrell, a British-based Canadian scientist specializing in applied mathematics, reiterates and outlines this esthetic interpretation of science, but adds a crucial caveat: the esthetic approach can also be detrimental to the progress of science.

The quest to make a theory or an equation beautiful has been overrated and can "lead us down the wrong track." This leads him to the search for a new conceptual approach to contemporary and future science.

Well-written and in an engaging style, the book is divided into three parts. First, a brief survey of science (mainly physics, chemistry, and astronomy) from the Greeks to the 20th century showing the esthetic assumptions underlying it, such as the recurring search for harmony based on music theory.

The second part goes back to the scientific revolution of the 17th century, where the empirical testing of scientific models led to accurate predictions. This Newtonian (mechanical) program worked until quantum mechanics and relativity in the 20th century, which spawned the present search for a "theory of everything."

Recent "beautiful" attempts to pull this off — the Standard Model of subatomic particles, supersymmetry, and string-theory — are different models but all are based on the same conceptual approach, namely, reductionism.

In the anti-reductionist third part, the most original and important section, Orrell questions this approach of using mathematical models based on physics for otherwise complex systems. Drawing on his own experience and contributions in applied mathematics, he reveals the limits of predictability for models of weather, biological systems and economics.

In short, reductionist models don’t work in such multifaceted worlds. Accordingly he calls for a change in approach from the mechanical to a more organic view, looking at systems more as organisms by using network and complexity theory.

There are, however, some weaknesses in the book. The historical sections are conventional summaries, essentially correct, but rather simplistic. There is little sensitivity to the nuances or immediate context of scientific ideas; the discoveries and insights come briefly and quickly, often jumping instantly across long time spans. This is a questionable approach for a book pitched at a general audience.

Another problem: Orrell is too slippery with the word esthetic, probably the most often used term in the book. True that harmony, unity and symmetry are essentially esthetic concepts.

But Orrell incorrectly uses esthetic for almost any preconceived idea, concept or assumption that is put forth without an empirical base. He fails to understand that some notions are based on metaphor, which has little to do with anything overtly esthetic.

There are probably a finite number of ways to envisage an order to things, and every conceptual bias is not necessarily of an esthetic nature.

Lastly, Orrell has an annoying penchant for stringing together seemingly endless quotations from other writers, especially scientists who talk about how beautiful their ideas are.

Instead, he should heed the advice of Einstein about the chatter of scientists: "Don’t listen to their words, fix your attention on their deeds."


David Topper is a senior scholar in history at the University of Winnipeg. His latest book, How Einstein Created Relativity, was recently published by New York-based Springer Publishing.


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