A Tale of Seven Sci­en­tists

Eric Scerri Ox­ford Univer­sity Press 2016 Hb, 228pp, il­lus, notes, ind, £22.99, ISBN 9780190232993

Fortean Times - - Reviews / Books -

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.

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