Monday, May 28, 2012

Chance knowledge and the cumulative effect

As I was driving past a park this Saturday, I saw that a section of it was burning. I suddenly had a vivid image of the entire park burning with high flames (It is a very large park). This then caused a thought about how Rome would have looked to Nero as it burnt. The revelation – I now know why Nero (the software) is so named.

This sort of random revelation is not an unusual thing. The most important part here was that I wasn’t thinking about computers at all. The experience was quite Sherlock Holmes-ish – When he gives voice to Dr. Watson’s thoughts by saying “Such a waste” and then proceeds to explain the chain of thought in the latter’s mind. Richard Bach compared ideas to fractures running in a crystal – any could lead to any other. Others have referred to the oneness of knowledge – that given one thing, everything else could be discovered. Both seem somewhat limited ways of explaining the experience.

Chance discoveries happen in science all the time. Microwave background radiation and radioactivity  are but two examples.

I’m thinking now of the cumulative nature of scientific knowledge. Both socio-economic theorists (Farcis Fukuyama, Fareed Zakaria etc.) and scientists (Francis Bacon) assert that with the invention of the scientific method (hypothesis-experiment-prove/disprove), scientific knowledge has become cumulative. That later generation inherit the knowledge of their predecessors. And it is intuitively true. We don’t have to rediscover the gravitational principle, although we may have to prove it several times over (damned CBSE exams!).

This is brought into somewhat contrary focus by the revelational experience. The cumulative nature of the scientific method no doubt holds true when the steps are small. Not to belittle any discoveries, but some _are_ greater than others. It took a Newton to get us to gravity, and even more drastically, an Einstein to get to relativity. Both works are quite out of the league for their times. The tools they used were there, as was the a-priori knowledge. But the power of the method seems to wane when we consider efforts where accepted first principles have to be discarded.

The cumulativity assertion says that given a state of human knowledge and the scientific method – the future can be worked out again. But how does this apply when the prior knowledge has to be discarded by a leap of faith.  When accidents force the next step forward, how does the scientific principle handle it? We can say that the geniuses use informed intuition (Kekule and the structure of Benzene). But that would lead us into the myriad definitions of genius and intuition.

And that’s a discussion for some other time.