A Tale of Seven Scientists
Eric Scerri Oxford University Press 2016 Hb, 228pp, illus, notes, ind, £22.99, ISBN 9780190232993
Eric Scerri’s fresh attempt to answer the question “What is science?” is mercifully easy to read, given how daunting the field he covers. Expecting another tribute to a selection of famous exceptionally gifted individuals, one is surprised by the author’s choice of what he calls ‘little people’ – seven virtually unknown chemists and physicists in the early 20th century, heroes nonetheless, whose work enabled the better known ‘heroes’ to determine the structure of the atom. These include Anton van den Broek (an amateur scientist who pioneered the idea of atomic numbers); Edmund Stoner (who while still a student provided the seed for Pauli’s Exclusion Principle); and the virtually unknown John Nicholson (the first to propose the quantisation of angular momentum used by Niels Bohr).
Scerri explores why the British seem to prefer Popper over Thomas Kuhn. Where Popper reasons that progress derives from logic and rationality, Kuhn argues that trial and error and multiple discovery play a far more important role in moving science forward. And while he criticises Kuhn’s famous notion of violent scientific revolutions, he agrees with him that science “is not drawn towards an external truth but is rather driven from within”.
Scerri’s conclusion is that an entity such as ‘Science’ needs constituent elements that behave intuitively, contributing ‘slack’ (as the Church of the SubGenius would call it) and the ‘unexpected’.
Fort saw ‘Science’ as groping towards an “inclusive whole”; “The whole is God to the parts”. This eerily recalls his casting of ‘existence’ as behaving like a singular organising organism. Using the language of the philosophy of science, Scerri seems to agree. Even the book jacket calls his approach “holistic and unified in which science is seen as a living and evolving single organism”.
Philosophical forteans will find this intriguing.