Science at a Distance
In Their Own Words

B Why?

It is a simple question, only three letters, but when this question was first asked, about 300,000 years ago by a mutant hominoid ape, it changed everything. A three and a half billion year age of innocence came to an end. A life form had arrived on the planet that could inquire, could question, and could probe its environment in new way. Afterwards the hominoid ape species was never the same and the simple question - why? - changed the world.

Until that point in time, almost all animals, including this ape ancestor of ours, depended on their ability to physically explore the world around them and constantly probe their immediate environment. Animals move, and use this mobility in their hunt for food, to escape from danger, and to search out mates. Apart from movement, all of these activities also involve a "questioning" of their surroundings; 'can I eat this?', 'is this dangerous?', 'what should I do now?'. So a form of "curiosity" is a natural and necessary pre-requisite for the animal way of life and for survival.

This kind of inbuilt curiosity, however, is almost entirely physical and is probably reflexive, it results from constant input of data (through the senses), an analysis of the situation, and a reaction to it. Animal behaviorists call it "appetitive behavior", a random searching for something interesting. Never-the-less, it is an important part of both animal and human behavior that separates our life form from that seen in plants.

B For a variety of reasons, the ancestors of the apes that were one day to evolve into modern humans, began to be born before they were fully developed (see Human Evolution in the book Exploring Life). This allowed the proto-human brain to continue growing outside the mother's womb and to make connections between brain cells that were the result of external stimuli. This new type of brain, and brain connections, was capable of carrying out processes as yet unknown in the animal world, including a new kind of curiosity.

As well as using the storage capacity of this new brain to retain facts, data and sensory input, this brain could be used in other ways. It was now possible to take one fact and place it beside another fact, all inside the brain, and then make connections between them. Making connections between different facts or ideas which currently have no physical presence, is the start of imagination, and these proto-humans had it.

With imagination it was possible to connect objects with sounds, and so start language. With imagination it was possible to connect a sharp stone with the need to cut up meat, and so start tool making. It was also possible to connect 'cause' with 'effect'; carelessly dropping a stone results in a sore toe! Slowly, early humans with imagination could probe not only their physical world, and ask questions, but also probe their new 'intellectual' world inside their brains, and start asking very different kinds of questions.

It was obviously of considerable importance to early humans to mentally connect the behavior of game animals such as woolly mammoths to digging pits into which the prey would fall and be caught for food. In this way, puny hominids could kill and eat huge elephant-like creatures which not even saber-toothed tigers would dare attack. Cause, the digging of a pit, results in effect, the capture of prey. Answering such "cause and effect" questions had great survival value, and humans began to do a lot of it.

B But in quiet moments, when there was plenty of food and no need to think of practical matters, perhaps a different "cause and effect" question began to be asked. "What is the cause of it raining outside?" "Why do leaves fall from some trees in autumn?" "What causes the sun to rise each morning?"

Animal explorative curiosity about their environments had, in humans, been turned into a "brain game" that, on the surface, had nothing to do with getting food, escaping danger or finding mates. What possible importance or value could there be in finding a connection between rain, and the cause of rain, or the cause of leaves falling, or the reason the sun rises every day? These are events that have well known empirical outcomes, does it matter what causes them? Apparently it did.

Asking the question was the start, but getting the answers has taken hundreds of thousands of years. When these kinds of questions were first asked there were no obvious answers, so the questioners turned for advice and help to the authority figures. Children turned to their parents and members of tribes turned to their leaders. "Why does it rain?" they asked, and the authority figures, knowing nothing about moisture in the air, clouds in the sky, cold fonts and upper level steering winds, turned instead to their everyday experiences.

"Humans cry when they are sad," they said, "and water flows from their eyes. Rain is because the Gods are crying." Using what they knew, they drew on this knowledge to create an analogy between humans crying (to produce drops of water) and gods crying (to produce lots of drops of water). Modern humans may smile at the simplicity of these answers, but we should not be too smug. Once again, these early humans were doing something remarkable. They were using their amazing new brains to create comparisons (between humans crying and gods crying), relate causes with effects (rain is caused by the gods crying), and extend this reasoning to create ideas or concepts that only existed in the brain and had no physical reality.

No one had ever seen a 'god'. Gods could not be seen or experienced in the same way that the rain could be seen and experienced. Instead, humans had taken the next step and used their new skills at imagining to related an observable outcome (rain) to a causation event that was beyond anyone's ability to view. The idea of abstraction had been born and the idea that outcomes might have hidden causes opened up a fertile new field of human thought, and a whole new arena of human enterprise.

B One of their more valuable abstract concepts was of 'hidden forces'. Given many different names, from gods to electricity, these forces impacted on natural events to produce valuable, sometimes unexpected outcomes. In northern climates, days grew shorter and shorter and the air grew colder and colder, why? It's because a god, a hidden force, was shortening the day by eating the sun thus making the day shorter and colder.

Establishing that winter had a cause, also led to the next major breakthrough in separating thinking humans from unthinking animals. Now that they knew what caused winter, it was possible to influence the hidden force, placate the angry god that was eating the sun, and make the days grow longer and warmer again. It worked! Sacrificing an animal on a stone altar just as the days were approaching their shortest, resulted in the god being appeased and the day-shortening to end. Spring arrived, and humans had accomplished something no other animal could do; humans could intervene and change the course of events, by altering the outcomes.

Nature was no longer mysterious, threatening or arbitrary; something to be feared. Everything that happened had a cause, and once the hidden force behind that cause was known, humans could intervene and modify the natural outcome. Knowledge was power, great power, and the members of the tribe that held that power became very important leaders and, naturally, they expected some reward.

For the next few hundred thousand years those members of society whose minds provided the tribes with the appropriate 'hidden forces', framed the causations, developed the interventions and produced the results were indeed amply rewarded. Unfortunately, powerful as it was, this method of providing answers had a fatal flaw; it produced arbitrary results that constantly needed upgrading and at times enforcing with the threat of violence. Anyone who did not believe in the appropriate 'god' might well find themselves the next winter sacrifice.

In decaying societies, priests and the gods they served, become more and more arbitrary, frivolous, petty and increasingly unpredictable. Sooner or later they are swept away by new gods and new priests who think up new ways of answering the perpetual question; why?

B About 600 BC. a new way of answering this question was invented. Greek thinkers of that time abandoned (at least partially) the idea that 'gods' were involved in world events and caused outcomes through whim or arbitrariness. The human-like quality of the 'hidden forces' was replaced by the concept that the world was a machine and was very non-human. This machine did not have 'feelings', did not need sacrifices to keep its emotions in check; it didn't have emotions. What this machine did have were rules; laws that governed what happened next.

Greek philosophers, once the implications of this new idea had sunk in, turned their nimble brains to an exciting new exercise. They were going to try and discover just what these "laws of nature" were and how they influenced events.

Starting with the work of Thales of Miletus (600 BC.) through that of Aristotle of Stagira, a new approach was used to studying and understanding knowledge and what could be deduced from it. The first assumption was that nature was not arbitrary or capricious, but was orderly, consistent and had "rules" that were always in place, determined the outcome of events and did not change at the whim or will of 'human-like' gods.

Secondly, facts or observed data could be organized in different ways. This 'moving around' of data did not change it in any way, but could give you a different perspective. Numbers such as 11, 14, 2, 20, 5, 17 and 8 have no apparent connection when written like this, but, rearrange them by size, thus, 2, 5, 8, 11, 14, 17 and 20, and suddenly a pattern emerges (the next number is always 3 larger than the one before). By putting the numbers into a 'sequence' a new property (the relationship between them) emerged, could be seen and could be studied. It was exciting.

The intellectual exercise we now call 'logic', is the one for which the Greeks will always be remembered. Systematic logic originated in the work of Aristotle, who was the first person to describe the 'rules' of reasoning. In this game, organizing data in different ways not only gave you a different perspective, it also allowed you to abstract and generalize about underlying meaning or meanings.

If object 'A' is lighter than object 'B', and object 'D' is heavier than object 'B', it follows from logic and reasoning that object 'D' is also heavier than object 'A'. This follows even if the reasoner has never seen objects 'A' and 'D' in the same place at the same time.

Or, observed from a distance, a beach looks like a single large object, but when examined closely is seen to be made up of tiny individual grains of sand. Generalizing from that observation, it might just be possible that all objects that look like single solids (like a bar of metal), might in fact be made up of tiny grains that could not be cut further ('a-toms' or 'without-cut').

B But it was in the realm of what is now called geometry that the new Greek ideas of logic and reason found their greatest expression. Greek geometers discovered that individual situations, such as the length of the sides of a right-angle triangle, could be grouped together and then a general statement made about the conditions that led to the formation of such a triangle. For example, they showed that a triangle with sides of 3, 4, and 5 units, 5, 12, and 13 units, or 7, 24 and 25 units, all had a right angle. But these were just numbers. Was there an underlying 'law' or 'rule' that governed such triangles?

By a series of carefully reasoned statements, the Greek geometers were able to show that indeed the sides of ALL right angle triangles followed a 'rule'; If the length of the longest side of a right angled triangle multiplied by itself (squared), that number equaled the sum of the squares of the lengths of the other two sides. This could be proved empirically (by testing out many many examples), but a more elegant proof by Pythagoras showed that such a relationship would hold true for EVERY such situation, you didn't have to go and test them all.

Such 'proofs', that hold for all cases or instances, fascinated the Greeks and the mathematics of relationships came to dominate a large area of their intellectual thinking. Prove one theorem, and then that theorem could then be used as a starting point for a different proof, and then another, and so on. Logic could build a family of independent proofs that were linked and thus led to higher levels of discovery and new 'laws' or 'rules'. Euclid in about 300 BC. gathered together such theorems and did indeed organized them in this way. We still use his theorems and deductions to this day.

B Such a series of 'cause' and 'effects', however, had to have a starting point. The Greeks called such a starting point an "axiom"; a statement so obvious that it needed no proof of itself. These axioms were statements such as "a straight line is the shortest distance between two points". From them, the first theorem could be proved, and from the first theorem the second theorem could be proved, and so on until quite remarkable conclusions could be drawn; all by unemotional logic and without the need for 'gods'.

Powerful as this approach might be, and revealing as the results were, the Greek method of discovering the hidden forces at work in the universe had one serious flaw. If the initial axiom(s) were wrong, then all that followed from it was wrong. Unfortunately, as the "lovers of knowledge" or philosphia as they called themselves, began to apply they logic to areas outside mathematics, they rapidly went astray.

It was axiomatic that, as Aristotle put it "the speed of an object's fall was proportional to its weight", or as Ptolemy said "the earth was motionless at the center of the universe". These things were so obvious as to be unquestioned and could then lead to theorems about the nature of gravity or the motion of the sun and planets around the earth. Having worked so well in the field of mathematics, the system of axiom and logic could now be applied to more subtle areas of the human knowledge and give answers to puzzling questions such as "What is truth?" or "What is justice?"

This movement of thought away from the natural philosophy of the inanimate world and into the subtle, dark, interesting but dangerous world of the human condition, marked the end of the golden age of Greek thinkers. As the time of the Romans drifted into the European period between 300 AD. and 1200 AD., intellectual pursuits centered on the nature of man and his relationship to a Christian god, areas of moral philosophy, rather than a search for the hidden forces directing the heavens and winds. Natural philosophy withered and almost vanished.

B Human understanding of the world around them and the perpetual human quest for an answer to the question - why? had apparently reached a dead end. Pre-Greek answers had used analogy and created human-like gods to explain cause and effect, whereas the Greeks themselves had dismissed such arbitrariness and based their ideas on an ideal, machine-like world where there were causes for every effect that could be deduced from axioms and first principles.

Both approach depended very heavily on the concept of deduction. Once the analogy or axiom was accepted, all the ideas and concepts that flowed from it were 'deduced' by building a logical artifice on the base of firmly grounded first principles. The constructs and theorems or gods and their whims could all be concluded from simple thought and logic, it was never necessary to actually test an idea or conclusion, either it was right or it was not, other proofs than the mathematical (or simple faith), were not needed.

B After many centuries of stagnation, moral philosophy based purely on deduction and the steady accretion of more and more tradition, was finally challenged by a new method of obtaining answers; induction.

Perhaps the most famous of these new investigators was son of Florentine family who were once called Bonaiuti, but who are better known as Galilei. Son Galileo Galilei was born in 1564 in the countryside near Pisa and was later sent to Florence to study grammar, logic and rhetoric in a monastery. His father, Vincenzio, wanted his son to become a physician and moved him to Pisa University where the medical curriculum included heavy doses of Galen and Aristotle.

By accident, he once heard a lecture on the theorems of Euclid and became an instant convert, secretly reading the Greek mathematician when he should have been studying Galen. Neglecting his medical tracts, he concentrated on mathematics and philosophy, until his anxious father learnt of his son's new interests, learnt of the poor job market for mathematicians and threatened the recalcitrant son with the loss of financial support.

Fortunately he did not succeed, although Galileo did leave Pisa University without a degree in the spring of 1585.

What Galileo eventually brought to science was a viewpoint that would have been entirely alien to pagans and Greeks. He never considered the world to be a perfect machine, or that pure deduction could ever reveal the 'truth' behind a cause and effect situation. Instead, he shifted the emphasis away from qualitative observation followed by deduction to quantitative observations followed by induction.

B Galileo measured things (quantitative observations). He measured the amount of time it took for balls of different materials to roll down inclined planes (slopes). By measuring the amount of time it took for a ball to 'fall' under the influence of gravity, he was able to show that Aristotle had been wrong all those hundreds of years ago; gravity was independent of mass!

From more and more such measurements, Galileo collected data or observations, and then tried to derive generalizations (a sort of axiom) from among the results obtained. It was the opposite of the Greek method. Instead of starting with the generalizations (axioms) and deducing the outcomes, Galileo started by measuring the outcomes (how fast a ball falls) and inducing the principle behind them, (the concept of gravity).

It was revolutionary! Once accepted, the inductive method swept away the older deductive method and opened up the inanimate world to investigation once more. Moral philosophy was left to others, if the human soul could not be measured, it could not be studied and no axioms or generalizations could be made about it. Intellectual thought took two different roads. Humanists and 'philosophers' continued to analyze the unmeasureable, while the new 'scientists' began to measure and induce.

In the world of science a hypothesis, theory or law is only as good as its last observation. There is never any claim of "ultimate truth" or a "perfect answer". Scientists, from hard experience, know better. Any generalization induced from any given set of measurements or observations only lasts as long as the data continues to fit. Make one observation that lies outside the theory, and the scientist must abandon that theory and induce another one. All facts must fit the theory and the theory must include all instances and outcomes. There can be no contradictions.

B Modern science flows from Galileo and this new 'scientific method'. It also embraces another concept that would have been alien to the Greeks; openness. Mathematical societies were secret societies in the time of Pythagoras, who, like Medieval alchemists and mathematicians, kept their discoveries to themselves and never thought about telling everyone else. Just the opposite.

Galileo, however, needed publicity in his fight to get his ideas accepted and tired to broadcast his ideas far and wide. Robert Boyle in England insisted that all science and scientific discoveries be published, challenged, repeated and continually tested. Nothing was to be either secret or taken for granted. Constant vigilance, constant testing and constant skepticism were the three 'constants' in any investigation.

Although gentlemen scientists might practice their craft alone, their results were the property of the "scientific community" and it was only acceptance by this community that brought validation. A group of such gentlemen, interested in the ideas of Galileo, founded the first scientific society in about 1645. From it came the "Royal Society" chartered by King Charles II, which experimented, debated, used English instead of Latin to publish their work and vigorously attacked any one or any method that did not meet their standards.

Standing on the shoulders of Galileo and the Royal Society came Issac Newton, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, Abert Einstein and many, many others who have championed and used the scientific method to advance our knowledge and give us answers. It would be too easy, however, to claim that the unquestioned triumphs of these scientists have completely discredited other ways of seeking answers.

B Once inductive methods split off from deductive methods, human intellectual thought went in two very different directions. Any intelligent person with training and practice can employ deductive reasoning and explore the unmeasureables in the human condition. Art, literature, music, criticism and beliefs are all accessible to any educated person and form a critical core of any human culture. They are, and should be, studied by all literate humans.

Inductive science, however, needs to be able to measure. These measurements were once simple to make and many early scientists were amateurs who funded their own work. But as our level of knowledge has increased, the funding necessary to do the experiments and make the necessary measurements have dramatically moved out of the reach of the average interested person and into the realm of government funded grants and industry sponsored investigations. It is very expensive to be a scientist today.

Cost, growth of knowledge and increasing specialization makes it impossible today for any one person to claim, as members of the original Royal Society could claim, that they understood and could master all fields of human knowledge. In many ways that are to be regretted, scientists have drifted, in the popular imagination, into the position once occupied by pagan shamans. By mysterious means they deliver pronouncements from high in their ivory towers and we are all supposed to be grateful that there are answers to our question - why? - but we rarely understand what the answer is.

It has become a matter of faith once more.

B We still want an answer and we want to understand the answer we are given. Just as paganism was unable to sustain itself and Greek philosophy eventually came to a dead end, so modern science will fail if it cannot communicate effectively. All around us there are disturbing signs of this failure and its consequences. In an age that is totally and completely dependent of the fruits of science and technology, not one in a million of its citizens can give a reasonable explanation of even the simplest scientific concept. Instead we turn back to easier answers given by systems that don't hide their methods or fail to communicate with devotees.

It is certainly ironic that in an age where all science is rapidly published, discussed and disseminated, few people outside their areas of expertise understand one word in a hundred. Partly this is the fault of modern education which, in America at least, is now founded almost totally on discredited pedagogical principles, long proven false. But that response is just passing the blame, most of the fault lies with scientists themselves.

Melvyn Bragg, a BBC Radio presenter, wrote in Science (21 August 1998, Vol. 281, pg 1138), that scientists he invited to appear on his radio program were reluctant to do so because they felt that they were .."patronized, ignored, or ill-understood". It appeared that the lack of communication was a two way problem. However, as Mr Bragg overcame this problem and more and more scientists appeared on his program, "there was more response from the public" and "the audience size ... significantly increased. Indeed, it nearly doubled." People want to hear from their scientists.

Science has to be bought back into the center of human culture and take its place along side art, music and literature. It must be made accessible. Just as a person can listen to a good piece of music without necessarily understanding the details or mechanics of composition or harmonics, so an educated person of the not-too-distant future must be able to appreciate the connection between a "cause" and "outcome" without necessarily understanding all the details of how it got there.

We now know that there are answers to our question - "Why?" - science has provided many of these answers. What we need next is a way of seeing these answers in a manner that is both factually correct but readily understood. Although many modern scientists would probably throw up their hands at such an idea, pointing out that modern science is "far too difficult to understand", they give up too easily. We don't want to see the grains of sand, we just want to see the beach.


Science at a Distance
© 1998 Professor John Blamire