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

Rajesh Kochhar

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

M

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

Rajesh Kochhar

250

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

beginning.”

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

251

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

verified.

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.

NOTES

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. Kochhar, Rajesh. 1995. ‘Transcending the Limits: Chandrasekhar’s Stellar Contribution”. Times of India,19

October.

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.

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