LESSON ONE INTRODUCTION
JUST WHAT IS SCIENCE?
For those interested in learning more, this course of study is necessary. It means just that—study; and you should be warned that it will not be great deal of fun. Many of you will be entering the field of science for the first time.We wish it were possible for us to have a friendly chat with each student at the beginning of this Study Course, in order that we might impart to him something of the ‘feeling’ of science before he receives portions of its substance. Since a conversation is out of the question, we are offering this informal discussion, addressed to the student, as the next best thing.
The immediate activity of Technocracy directs itself towards two general ends. The analytical purpose inquiring into fundamental relations among the various parts of a Price (money based) economy and discloses the reasons for the collapse of such a System in any civilization that converts energy at a high rate. There is also the synthetic purpose that designs a control which will successfully operate just such a high energy civilization. Please do not think of the analytic aspect of Technocracy as the destructive aspect, for there is nothing destructive about it. It does not destroy the Price System. The Price System destroys itself. Nor do we particularly like the antonym of ‘destructive.’ The word ‘constructive’ has been bandied about so much by leaders of the present system that it begins to have an odor all its own. We shall not, however, study either of these sides of Technocracy; not at once, anyway. We shall study, not Technocracy, as such, but the soil in which its roots are spread—science itself. It is appropriate for you to ask, at the outset of your course, what is this thing called science? How does it differ from something that is not science?
We want you to have, at the end of this discussion, a fairly clear answer to your questions; and of what is meant by a scientific mind, a scientific viewpoint, and a scientific approach to a problem. What about the word ‘fact’? That has a familiar sound. You have all been using it all your lives, and yet if you were to ask two people picked at random for the meaning of the term, you would get rather dissimilar explanations. To a scientist, ‘fact’ has a very specific and rigid meaning.
Please remember this definition, in essence if not in exact words. A fact is a close agreement of a series of observations of the same phenomenon.
Some examples: You find a strip of steel and want to determination of its length. A layman measures with the tools he has and accepts that answer. The scientific investigator lays a scale parallel to the unknown length and measures it. He reads the scale at, say, 10.0 centimeters, but he does not accept that measurement as fact. He repeats the measurement taking care that no errors that he might have formerly overlooked affect the result. They might use a more accurate scale, one with a vernier (measuring device), and he reads the length to be 10.0 centimeters. In such a simple measurement as that of linear distance to one or two decimal places, two observations would be an extensive enough series to establish the fact that the length is so many centimeters, but if accuracy to the fifth or sixth place were required our scientist would employ instruments more refined than the simple scale and would make more than two determinations.
The most probable value for the velocity of light is 2.99796 × 1010 centimeters per second, which is, as you know, something over 186,000 miles per second. I could not possibly guess how many observations this fact took to assure the result. Once an apparatus is set up, successive, determinations can be made rather quickly.
In the definition just given, the word ‘observation’ is used in a broad sense. It means, of course, direct observation by our various sense organs, and it includes the phenomena we are examining that lie outside the field of our direct perception. We then must devise ways of producing effects which lie within that field. For example: We are directly aware of electro-magnetic radiation having any wavelength between approximately 0.4 and 0.8 micron. (A micron is one 10,000 of a centimeter.) We see this as light. We observe radiation shorter than 0.4 micron, that is, ultra-violet light, or even X-rays, much shorter yet, by exposing to the radiation a special photographic plate protected against ordinary light. How do we observe radiation with the wavelength of 3/4-mile, which is unrecordable by photographic processes? That particular wavelength is in the range of marine signals, and we could detect it on a ship’s wireless long ago and use lasers and computers now.
We have said a fact is a close agreement of a series of observations. Now, what about those ‘facts’ that cannot in any manner be observed by man; those that, because of their remote or hidden character, not only lie outside the field of his perception but refuse to exhibit themselves even through his most ingenious apparatus? It is implicit in our definition that there are no such facts. If and whatever such remote things are, they are not facts at this time until we find a way to measure and observe repeatedly.
One more point, and we shall be finished with our definition. It is a sine qua non (a necessary condition or thing) of scientific work that all observations must be susceptible to confirmation. They must be carried out so they may be repeated at will, or, if they are not repeatable, must have such a nature that you and I can ourselves substantiate them if we care to do the requisite work. We make a careful distinction, you see, between verifiable and non-verifiable observations because from the verifiable come facts, while from non-verifiable come—well what? We assure you none of those ‘facts’ is within the scope of science. Science is built upon facts as we now understand them. Science is, indeed, nothing more than a system of facts and principles elaborated from facts. It is indispensable, therefore, that we check the verifiability of observations before we accept them as a valid basis for fact.
Suppose we came upon a document signed by a dozen names and properly notarized. The document states that the undersigned have just returned from the planet Venus, where they erected a monument to Colonel Stoopnagle. We would have the perfect agreement of a series of observations of an event, and the statement cannot by any means be disproved. But even non-scientists would be apt to reject this as a fact.
As silly as the previous example was, here is a more considered example. Assuming you have never visited Sydney, Australia, how do you know that there is a city by that name? You may have heard people mention it, or seen the name on maps, but perhaps something is being put over on you; perhaps it is all a great hoax. When Napoleon’s chief spy, Karl Schulmeister, was working himself high in the ranks of the Austrian secret service, he received almost daily a copy of a Parisian newspaper. He said an agent of his smuggled it across the border. Naturally, the Austrians got a lot of information about conditions in France. The truth was that the newspaper was printed solely for Schulmeister and the Austrian generals, and each edition consisted of only one copy. It was all false, all exactly what Napoleon wanted his enemies to know. Might it not be the same with Sydney? The reason each of you believes in the existence of this place is because you know that knowledge is the kind that can be verified. You know many persons must have checked its reality by going there. You know that if worst came to worst you could go there yourself. This, then, is a fact, one which like all facts of science, can be reestablished by anyone.
The student of science in our schools has laboratory courses in which he actually does check the work of others in simple experiments. This is done partly to develop his manual dexterity in that sort of thing, but mostly to drive into his head the knowledge that all observations may be so checked.
Why this insistence on exact meaning? A scientist knows exactly what he is talking about. That sounds like a boast, but it is really the opposite. A scientist pays attention to the exact definition of terms; they should not use a term beyond its definition and should not use an undefined term. Now, contrast a rigidly defined scientific term with the expressions used in fields other than science—in finance, in politics, law, etc.
Suppose you were reading an article on economics and came upon the word ‘price’, as you undoubtedly would. Now you, being an inquiring individual, insist on exact definition. You would discover that almost every economist connects to the word ‘price’ a different meaning. Some define it as the measure of the ratio of the scarcity of money to the scarcity of any commodity. Others introduce psychological and social factors. Invariably you will find that a definition when given is followed by great amounts of explanatory and qualifying material. This means the definition represents what is in the author’s mind, not what is in the minds of all users of the word. For example: The Encyclopedia Britannica definition: ‘Price is value expressed in terms of money.’ Then comes the qualifying material which says, in effect, this does not mean values are determined independently of or prior to the determination of their prices, or that values of goods and money are determined separately. Some sort of an exchange is necessary, after which the values thus determined appear in the guise of money prices.
Exchange value is a generalization of the idea of price. One who finds this less than clear would naturally try to discover what is meant by value, since price is expressed in terms of it. There are three conceptions of value: exchange value, subjective value, and imputed price. We find that a theory of values exist, but what of the following points: What is the nature of value? What are the fundamental values, and how are they to be classified? How may we determine the relative values of things, and what is the ultimate standard of value? Are values subjective or objective? What is the relation of values to things or of value to existence and reality?
More definition examples: Go around: A person is standing near a large tree, and a squirrel is hanging onto the opposite side of the tree. The hunter now moves in a circle completely around the tree until he regains his starting position, at the same time the squirrel moves around the tree in the same direction and in such a manner as it is always on the tree opposite the man. Now, the problem is this: Does the hunter go around the squirrel? The correct answer is not ‘yes,’ and it is not ‘no.’’ If we define ‘go around’ as meaning that the hunter is first south, then west, then north, then east, and finally south of the squirrel, he very obviously does go around it. But if we agree that ‘go around’ shall mean first opposite the squirrel’s belly, then its right side, then its back, then its left side, the answer is just as definitely ‘no.’ We see the necessity for exact definition. It is inimical to the integrity of scientific thinking to use words loosely. Lack of careful definition sires more controversies, debates, arguments than a whole countryside of rabbit farms. Many problems outside science would vanish if definition were exact.
Can anyone define the word ‘centimeter?’ How long is a centimeter? It is useless to say it is the 100th part of a meter; one merely asks: ‘How long is a meter? Is there an exact definition of length not in terms of other units of length?’ Yes. In the International Bureau of Standards near Paris is a certain bar of metal. It is an alloy of 90% platinum and 10% iridium. On this bar are two marks, and a centimeter is defined as one one-hundredth the distance between these two marks when the bar is at 0° Centigrade. This is an example of the prosaic way scientists go about things. If they cannot define a term in relationship to other terms, they define it in terms of an object or system of objects in the external world. The distinction between a definition and a fact is clear.
A definition is an agreement, wholly arbitrary in character, among men; while a fact is an agreement among investigations carried out by men.
It is a definition that a centimeter is one one-hundredth the distance between certain marks on a certain bar at a certain temperature. It is a fact that a particular strip of steel is 10 centimeters long.
We have been talking about fundamental things. Let us see if we can go deeper yet. Even if we fail to take you to the heights of science, at least we start you at the bottom. There are in science, agreements other than those of fact or definition. These are called postulates, and it is the postulates of science that are the foundations of science. A postulate is a statement of fact but differs from a fact in that the observations supporting it are not confirmable. A postulate partakes of the nature of a definition in that it is an agreement among men, but it differs from a definition in that it concerns no trivial matter of nomenclature, and in that it is certainly not arbitrary. A definition is a mere shortcut in the language. Definitions which can be done away with easily cannot be the fundamental terms we seek. But there is no more essential, however complex, manner of stating a postulate.
- The first postulate states that the external world actually is. In other words, a chair, a pencil, a city, the mountains, rivers, oceans, continents really do exist. We can at once go to work on them without having to establish their existence.
- The second postulate states that nature is uniform. This means we do not have to flounder about in a world wherein a sack of flour suddenly transforms itself into a fish, and that into an automobile, and that into an oil well. The second postulate is our protection against chaos.
- The third postulate states that there are symbols in the ‘mind’ which stand for events and things in the external world. This means, in effect, that the mind itself is uniform. Mathematicians will note that the third postulate establishes a one-to-one correspondence between all that is in our minds and all that is in the external world. A corollary of this is that there is nothing in all the world that has the priori quality of being unknowable. In this paragraph the word ‘mind’ has been used in its conventional sense.
Is science built on a firm foundation? Yes. It stands, properly ordered and rock solid, upon the enduring base of its postulates. It is not scientific to discuss questions of ultimate truth, nor ultimate reality, nor anything else ultimate. Discuss these as philosophers if you like, but not as scientists.
We have not spoken of heat, sound, electricity, hydraulics, etc., which are branches of physics, nor of zoology, cytology, embryology, etc., branches of biology, nor chemistry and its branches. Why not? Simply because there are no ‘sciences’, there is only one science.
Suppose we bring together two substances, carbon dioxide and water. Nothing much happens, as you know from your experience with charged water. Bring them together on the leaf of a plant in the presence of chlorophyll, and still nothing much happens. But allow sunlight to fall on the leaf, and these two simple substances will be synthesized into additional plant tissue, cellulose. Here we have light, chemistry, and botany all in one reaction.
Consider radiation therapy where advantage is taken of the fact that malignant tumor cells have three to four times the electrical condenser capacity of benign tumor cells. Here we have electricity, short-wave radiation, and human pathology becoming one problem.
If you undertake the study of chemistry you will reach something called physical chemistry, which might just as well be called chemical physics. The chlorophyll of plants mentioned a moment ago and the hemoglobin of your blood have very similar chemical structures. Your plasma (watery portion of blood) contains the same salts as sea water and in nearly the same proportions. Do you see that there can be no frontiers within science; that there is, indeed, only one science?
The two aspects of Technocracy, analytic and synthetic are characteristic of the whole field of science. The collecting of facts of all available kinds, by carefully repeated observations in all parts of the world by all types of interpreting apparatus, is clearly of an analytical nature. What do we do with these facts as they are collected? Is our work finished when we make a report in the literature and neatly file it on a library shelf? Facts are powerful tools in our hands, continually in use, but you will see that no fact is absolutely certain, having been established by inductive methods (from specific to general). Fifty observations may have agreed very closely, but we cannot say positively that therefore the next fifty will so agree.
The mechanism of scientific progress is this: We start with any phenomenon we care to on the basis of what we have observed, such and such a modification will probably produce such and such a result.’ Then it is tried if the probability is great enough. Sometimes it works and sometimes not. When it does work comes marvelous technical accomplishments.
Science is in a dynamic sense, essentially a method of prediction. It has been defined as being the method of the determination of the most probable.
In tossing a coin, how does one know how many times heads will turn up? How does an insurance company know how many people will die next year? How does a geologist know where to drill for oil?
These are illustrations of scientific predictions. Some of these predictions are more exact than others, but they are all based on the same fundamental principles of reasoning from the basic facts. When more facts are known, more accurate predictions can be made. That is what is meant by the most probable; not that by this method one knows exactly what will happen, but by its use we can determine more nearly what will happen than by any other method.
No machine, no group of machines may be properly operated except as specified by their design. A vehicle increases speed by increasing pressure on an accelerator. No abstract ideas such as, is it ethical to speed up or is it the best possible way are considered. A machine is built to respond to certain codes. America’s idle factories, her wanton destruction of food supplies while her citizens remain undernourished are results of trying to operate a system by other criteria.
Engineering is a frequently used term. You can understand that a scientific laboratory is not always a single building on a college campus. More often the dimensions of a laboratory coincide with the boundaries of a city or a nation. Suppose you have the problem of transporting a liter of acid from one side of the room to the other. The best solution would be to pick the bottle up and carry it across. It is very simple. Suppose you are confronted with the same problem on a somewhat larger scale. Now you must consider a number of things that did not enter into the smaller problem. What material will you install to convey the acid? What motive power will you use to propel it? Where will your storage tanks be located?
This is the engineering side of chemistry. On the basis of established facts, the solution that is probably the best must be found for each question. Laboratory electricity is the production of electrical energy in a voltaic cell. Electrical engineering is the production of electrical energy and the transportation of it a hundred miles at a hundred thousand volts.
Please recognize that we are still within the field of science, and remember no frontiers are set up anywhere in this field. There is only one science, and there is no essential difference between science and engineering. The stoking of a Bunsen burner, the stoking of a boiler, the ‘stoking’ of the people of a nation, are all one problem.
Since we are now actually to begin studies in this field, let us recapitulate the several pieces of equipment we have for the job.
There are five senses through which the external world is perceptible to us.
We have a mind to reflect upon what is perceived. But it is now a critical mind, unwilling to accept knowledge until inquiry is made into the source, neither believing nor disbelieving until the sources have been verified. We are continually aware that science is more than a dry catalog of facts; it is a dynamic and powerful tool before which all problems shall someday yield.