paul_davies's picture
Theoretical physicist; cosmologist; astro-biologist; co-Director of BEYOND, Arizona State University; principle investigator, Center for the Convergence of Physical Sciences and Cancer Biology; Author, The Eerie Silence and The Cosmic Jackpot
Response to Margaret Wertheim

Margaret Wertheim asks what is meant by "science." I have an answer. It must involve more than merely cataloguing facts, and discovering successful procedures by trial and error. Crucially, true science involves uncovering the principles that underpin and link natural phenomena. Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with Margaret that we should respect the world view of indigineous non-European peoples, I do not believe the examples she cites — Mayan astronomy, Chinese acupuncture, etc. — meet my definition. The Ptolemaic system of epicycles achieved reasonable accuracy in describing the motion of heavenly bodies, but there was no proper physical theory underlying it. Newtonian mechanics, by contrast, not only described planetary motions more simply, it connected the movement of the moon with the fall of the apple. That is real science, because it uncovers things we cannot know any other way. Has Mayan astronomy or Chinese acupuncture ever led to a successful nontrivial prediction producing new knowledge about the world? Many people have stumbled on the fact that certain things work, but true science is knowing why things work. I am open-minded about acupuncture, but if it does work, I would rather put my faith in an explanation based on nerve impulses than mysterious energy flows that have never been demonstrated to have physical reality.

Why did science take root in Europe? At the time of Galileo and Newton, China was far more advanced technologically. However, Chinese technology (like that of the Australian Aborigines) was achieved by trial and error refined over many generations. The boomerang was not invented by first understanding the principles of hydrodynamics and then designing a tool. The compass (discovered by the Chinese) did not involve formulating the principles of electromagnetism. These latter developments emerged from the (true, by my definition) scientific culture of Europe. Of course, historically, some science also sprang from accidental discoveries only later understood. But the shining emblems of true science — such as radio waves, nuclear power, the computer, genetic engineering - all emerged from the application of a deep theoretical understanding that was in place before — sometimes long before — the sought-after technology.

The reasons for Europe being the birthplace of true science are complex, but they certainly have a lot to do with Greek philosophy, with its notion that humans could come to understand how the world works through rational reasoning, and the three monothesitic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — with their notion of a real, lawlike, created order in nature, imposed by a Grand Architect. Although science began in Europe, it is universal and now available to all cultures. We can continue to cherish the belief systems of other cultures, whilst recognizing that scientific knowledge is something special that tanscends cultures.

Paul Davies is an internationally acclaimed physicist, writer and broadcaster, now based in South Australia. Professor Davies is the author of some twenty books, including Other Worlds, God and the New Physics, The Edge of Infinity, The Mind of God, The Cosmic Blueprint, Are We Alone? and About Time.

LINK: "The Synthetic Path" — Ch. 18 in The Third Culture