Role of Human Factor in Science (2004)
From the book: History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization, Vol XI, Part 1, Philosophical Conciousness and Scientific Knowledge : Conceptual Linkage and Civilizational Background, Edited by D.P.Chattopadhyaya, Published by Centre for Studies in Civilization, New Delhi, 2004
Till Science Transcends the Scientist:
Role of Human Factor in Science
Most people would baulk at a phrase like ‘literature (or music) and culture’ on the
ground that the first term is already contained in the second. But they would
uncritically accept a construction like ‘science and culture’. The reason
probably is this. Like a poet or a painter, a scientist is also culturally anchored; but there
is a difference. When scientists discover fundamental laws, uncover patterns in nature or
establish linkages among seemingly disparate phenomena, they do so on behalf of the
whole humanity. Their work in fact transcends even humanity in the sense that laws of
nature as discovered on the earth will be recognized as such by scientists working
elsewhere in the universe even though one cannot even imagine what the cultural setting
of these extraterrestrial scientists would be.
In other disciplines, creative work remains the property of its creator. Science,
however, aims to liberate itself from the scientist. For a scientific theory, hypothesis or
model to become established, be accepted as received wisdom and treated as textbook
material, its author’s name must cease to be proprietory and become merely descriptive
instead. Till such time as science transcends the scientist, human factors like values,
judgements, foibles, idiosyncrasies, prejudices and biases play a role, but not afterwards.
It is notable that controversies in science are not settled by the contestants but by
time. Timescales needed to establish theories are longer than those associated with
individual scientists. At any point in time, science raises questions that cannot be
answered by the scientists of the day. It is on such questions that scientists take positions.
The issues are settled not because one set of scientists succeeds in convincing the other,
but because new evidence accumulates and slowly the issues resolve themselves. The
controversies however do serve. an important scientific function. They bring the issues
into sharper focus and encourage further observations/experiments.
An important question that needs to be addressed is this:
When the existing evidence is not adequate to choose between two competing models or
hypotheses, what are the arguments proffered by the adherents of each side in support of
their point of view, and how these arguments influence the future course of development.
We can illustrate the above points with the help of some examples, drawn from
astronomy and cosmology. In 1920 two leading astronomers of the day, Harlow Shapley
and Heber D Curtis, participated in a ‘great debate’ on the scale of the universe.
The debate raised a number of important questions: Was the galaxy
bigger than hitherto assumed? Yes, Was the sun at the centre of
From the book: History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization, Vol XI, Part 1, Philosophical
Conciousness and Scientific Knowledge : Conceptual Linkage and Civilizational Background, Edited by D.P.
Chattopadhyaya, Published by Centre for Studies in Civilization, New Delhi, 2004
our galaxy? No. Was our galaxy the only one in the universe, or were there others like it?
[It was one among many].
“In the debate, both participants supported their conclusions with formidable arrays
of observational data that they themselves had secured. Both had carefully scrutinized
observations by others and checked their results. Written statements were prepared by
both men and exchanged before the meeting. Each had made minor revisions after
reading his opponent’s views, but neither found it possible to accept the others principal
conclusions.”1 Significantly, “nor were other astronomers able to decide definitely
between the two points of view.”2 The debate provides “a glimpse into the reasoning
processes of eminent scientists engaged in a great controversy for which the evidence on
both sides is fragmentary and partly faulty. This debate illustrates forcefully how tricky it
is to pick one’s way through the treacherous ground that characterizes research in the
frontiers of science.”3 The scientific issues involved in the debate were resolved over a
period of two decades when the frontiers of knowledge got progressively pushed further.
Three decades later there erupted another controversy, this time on the origin of the
universe. Did the universe begin by exploding from a hot dense state (‘big bang’), or was
it without a beginning (‘steady state’). (Interestingly, the now standard technical term big
bang cosmology with the same initials as British Broadcasting Corporation, was coined
rather pejoratively, in 1948, by Fred Hoyle.) The steady state model was finally proved
wrong by the detection in 1965 of the three degree kelvin microwave background
radiation, which proved that the universe was hotter in the past. While the controversy
lasted, it brought into focus philosophical postulates (Was there need for a ‘perfect
cosmological principle’?) as well as questions of methodology (What constitutes
Popperian testability in areas such as cosmology?). How do proponents of a theory
respond to its rejection? Max Planck, the founder of quantum physics, held a rather
extreme view. “An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually
winning over and converting its opponents. What does happen is that its opponents
gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarised with the ideas from the
While it is true that many propounders stick to their views till their physical or
intellectual death, there are any number of examples where the proponents of a view have
willingly abandoned it when new evidence to the contrary came along. In one respect
however Planck was right, that is, about the growing generation. Even though attempts
are still on to salvage steady-state model, the new generation of researchers is being
brought up on the standard big-bang. (I was once told by an American academic that his
pro-steady state proposal was turned down by funding agencies on the ground that
younger generation should not be involved it. An otherwise well-respected American
astronomer was refused telescope time for his non-standard observational programme,
and moved over to Germany, a reversal of the historic scientific traffic.)
Human factor has played a role in the case of mathematical
theories as well. Einstein himself intervened in his entirely
self-consisted gravitational theory, erroneously called General Theory of Relativity
(GTR), by introducing an arbitrary term to prevent the theory from permitting expansion
of universe which he thought was unphysical. Once the universe was observationally
shown to, be expanding, sensibly the theory was left alone to
Till Science Transcends the Scientist: Role of Human Factor in Science
speak for itself. The Nazi attempts to brand GTR as Jewish science were short-lived, for
two reasons. First, the well-known failure of Newtonian gravitation to explain Mercury’s
orbit had already created a slot for an improved theory, even if nobody had any clue as to
what the new theory would look like. More importantly, within four years of its
enunciation, a prediction by GTR (bending of starlight by sun) was experimentally
Einstein was fortunate that the verifiability of his theory was within the capabilities
of the technology of the day. Subramanya Chandrasekhar was not so lucky. He was the
first to apply Theory of Special Relativity to problems of stellar evolution. His
mathematically rigorous work on the white dwarf stars, which essentially predicted the
existence of black holes, was ridiculed by Sir Arthur Eddington, the then most influential
astronomer in Europe. With a haughtiness one associates with Viceroys rather than
scientists, he declared: “I think there should be a law of nature to prevent a star from
behaving in this absurd manner.” Sir Arthur was blinded by his self-righteousness; the
others by the glare of his personality.4 It was not that one hypothesis was competing with
another. It was an exact mathematical theory that was pitted against refusal to listen.
Eventually, the discovery of the pulsar stars and quasar galaxies vindicated
Chandrasekhar. Interestingly, though Chandrasekhar won a number of academic awards
for his subsequent researches, it was only in 1974 that an award citation referred to his
pathbreaking white dwarf work. Eddington’s prejudice had delayed the development of
relativistic astrophysics by forty years! Ironically, a film on white dwarfs recently made
by BBC was titled ‘Absurd Stars’ and showed a photograph of Sir Arthur rather than
Chandrasekhar, making light of the former’s prejudice. Therefore, the journey of a
scientific theory from its enunciation till its enshrinement in textbooks is often a long
one. It is in the interim period that human factors come into play.
1. Struve, O. and Zebergs, V. 1962. Astronomy of the 20th Century. New York: Macnultan. p. 416.
2. Ibid. p. 444.
3. Shu, F. 1982, The Physical Universe. An Introduction to Astronomy. Mill Valley: University Science Books.p.286.
4. Struve and Zebergs.
1. Kochhar, Rajesh. 1995. ‘Transcending the Limits: Chandrasekhar’s Stellar Contribution”. Times of India,19
2. Shu, F. 1982. The Physical Universe. An Introduction to Astronomy. Mill Valley: University Science Books.
3. Struve, O. and Zebergs, V. 1962. Astronomy of the 2Oh Century. New York: Macnultan.