Good morning on this the fourteenth day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.
I’ve been reading TOF’s The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown. It’s excellent, and you really should read it.
And then by complete coincidence, I happened across this video, which is a description of a classroom lesson on scientific experimentation:
It looks like a really good lesson for students in a science class, btw. If you don’t have time to watch the video, the professor seals a rectangle of aluminum foil inside of a block of paraffin which is very slightly larger than the foil, then asks his class to make observations and try to figure out what it is without doing destructive experiments. Especially in the version where the students can only look at it and ask the professor to turn it around and shine lights on it, this actually does a good job of representing the difficulty often faced in science: for one reason or another you can’t do the experiment which would actually tell you what you have, so you have to be crafty and clever to try to find substitute experiments. This applies to a great degree in the problem of astronomy, especially in the seventeenth century, when celestial objects were so remote and barely observable.
It’s also interesting to hear about the mistakes which the students make along the way, which to some degree mirror the progression we saw in astronomy, where assumptions always start out simple and familiar, then are disproved by experimental evidence.
Which actually brings up a really interesting topic I don’t have time to get into, about The Scientific Method versus actual science. The very short version is that half of the scientific method as typically described comes from Modern Philosophy where knowledge was reconceptualized1 from being descriptive of the real world to creative and limited to the inside of the human head. This corresponds roughly to the steps of the scientific method which are about forming a hypothesis and to a lesser degree devising tests. Since as Chesterton said the modern age is the age of publicity, Modern Philosophers have spread the idea that this is really the key to Science brand natural investigation (please read that like “Kleenex brand facial tissue”), when in fact it may be one of the less important parts. Theories, history has shown us, are a dime a dozen2. The hard part is getting good experimental data. Because as history has also shown us, experimental data is easy to come by if you don’t care whether the experimental data means anything. Experimental data where you’ve tested for the existence of variables and then controlled for them is very difficult indeed. It’s also often quite expensive. But I’d argue that it’s the experimentalists who really give science it’s glory. For some reason the theoretical physicists seem to have better publicity than the experimental physicists do, possibly because what they do is far less messy and therefore sexier than what the experimentalists do and can therefore be packaged for retail much more easily. But a great many exciting theories have turned out to be at best mediocre fiction, while experiments are often inconclusive but always true. And when they combine both, the experiments are amazing. In theory the experimentalists require the theorists to give them some idea what to experiment upon, but I’m not sure how true this is in practice. No one in the seventeenth century needed a theory in order to point a telescope at Jupiter and make detailed observations about its moons. As the saying goes:
In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there often is.
God bless you.
1. Sorry, I just couldn’t resist this absurd, modern word to describe the absurd, modern project.
2. This is actually overstating the case; they cost about how often academic scientists publish divided by their yearly salary. This actually makes them fairly expensive unless you consider them to be side-effects of some other job such as teaching students or increasing a university’s prestige to bring in donations.