The Nature of Science
by Isaac Asimov
When science first burst upon the world in full force, a scant three hundred years or so ago, society reacted by treating it as something apart from the rest of the world - as an alien activity practiced with a cold and almost inhuman objectivity. This may have been a normal reaction to so powerful and novel an innovation, the equivalent of a living organism's rejection of a biological invader. In truth, however, science is as human an endeavor as, well, fishing - as Isaac Asimov explains.
A NUMBER OF YEARS AGO, when I was a freshly appointed instructor, I met,
for the first time, a certain eminent historian of science. At the time I
could only regard him with tolerant condescension.
I was sorry for a man who, it seemed to me, was forced to hover about the edges of science. He was compelled to shiver endlessly in the outskirts, getting only feeble warmth from the distant sun of science-in-progress; while I, just beginning my research, was bathed in the heady liquid heat at the very center of the glow. In a lifetime of being wrong at many a point, I was never more wrong. It was I, not he, who was wandering in the periphery. It was he, not I, who lived in the blaze.
I had fallen victim to the fallacy of the "growing edge"; the belief that
only the very frontier of scientific advance counted; that everything that
had been left behind by that advance was faded and dead.
But is that true? Because a tree in spring buds and comes greenly into leaf, are those leaves therefore the tree? If the newborn twigs and their leaves were all that existed, they would form a vague halo of green suspended in mid-air, but surely that is not the tree. The leaves, by themselves, are no more than trivial fluttering decoration. It is the trunk and limbs that give the tree its grandeur and the leaves themselves their meaning.
There is not a discovery in science, however revolutionary, however sparkling
with insight, that does not arise out of what went before. "If I have seen
further than other men," said
Isaac Newton, "it is because I have stood
on the shoulders of giants."
And to learn that which goes before does not detract from the beauty of a scientific discovery but, rather, adds to it; just as the gradual unfolding of a flower, as seen by time-lapse photography, is more wonderful than the mature flower itself, caught in stasis.
In fact, an overly exclusive concern with the growing edge can kill the best of science, for it is not on the growing edge itself that growth can best be seen. If the growing edge only is studied, science begins to seem a revelation without a history of development. It is Athena, emerging adult and armed from the forehead of Zeus, shouting her fearful war cry with her first breath.
How dare one aspire to add to such a science? How can one ward off bitter disillusion when part of the structure turns out to be wrong. The perfection of the growing edge is meretricious while it exists, hideous when it cracks.
But add a dimension!
Take the halo of leaves and draw it together with branches that run into limbs that join to form a trunk that firmly enters the ground. It is the tree of science that you will then see, an object that is a living, growing, and permanent thing; not a flutter of leaves at the growing edge, insubstantial, untouchable, and dying with the frosts of fall.
Science gains reality when it is viewed not as an abstraction, but as the concrete sum of work of scientists, past and present, living and dead. Not a statement in science, not an observation, not a thought exists in itself. Each was ground out of the harsh effort of some man, and unless you know the man and the world in which he worked; the assumptions he accepted as truths; the concepts he considered untenable; you cannot fully understand the statement or observation or thought.
Consider some of what the history of science teaches. First, since science
originated as the product of men and not as a revelation, it may develop
further as the continuing product of men. If a scientific law is not an eternal
truth but merely a generalization which, to some man or group of men,
conveniently described a set of observations, then to some other man or group
of men, another generalization might seem even more convenient. Once it is
grasped that scientific truth is limited and not absolute, scientific
truth becomes capable of further refinement. Until that is understood, scientific
research has no meaning.
Second, it reveals some important truths about the humanity of scientists.
Of all the stereotypes that have plagued men of science, surely one above
all has wrought harm. Scientists can be pictured as "evil," "mad," "cold,"
"self-centered," "absentminded," even "square" and yet survive easily.
Unfortunately, they are usually pictured as "right" and that can distort
the picture of science past redemption.
Scientists share with all human beings the great and inalienable privilege of being, on occasion, wrong; of being egregiously wrong sometimes, even monumentally wrong. What is worse still, they are sometimes perversely and persistently wrongheaded. And since that it true, science itself can be wrong in this aspect or that.
With the possible wrongness of science firmly in mind, the student of science
today is protected against disaster. When an individual theory collapses,
it need not carry with it one's faith and hope and innocent joy. Once we
learn to expect theories to collapse and to be supplanted by more useful
generalizations, the collapsing theory becomes not the gray remnant of a
broken today, but the herald of a new and brighter tomorrow.
Third, by following the development of certain themes in science, we can
experience the joy and excitement of the grand battle against the unknown.
The wrong turnings, the false clues, the elusive truth nearly captured half
a century before its time, the unsung prophet, the false authority, the hidden
assumption and cardboard syllogism, all add to the suspense of the struggle
and make what we slowly gain through the study of the history of science
worth more than what we might quickly gain by a narrow glance at the growing
To be sure, the practical thought might arise: But would it not be better
if we learned the truth at once? Would we not save time and effort?
Yes, we might, but it is not as important to save time and effort as to enjoy the time and effort spent. Why else should a man rise before dawn and go out in the damp to fish, waiting happily all day for the occasional twitch of his line when, without getting out of bed, he might have telephoned the market and ordered all the fish he wanted?