Getting Started | On Beyond Darwin - Chapter 1


Getting Started

I taught university-level Physics for over twenty years. During that period a new discipline, Computer Science, grew up and I was part of the pioneering development in this new field. Although my university work was then taken up completely with Computer Science, I still could not get Physics off my mind.

My Ph.D. degree in Physics at the University of Toronto involved making numerical calculations to try to understand the behavior of complex atoms. It was the need to do numerical calculations that first led me into the fascinating world of computers. Although electronic computers had been designed and built in the late forties, by the time I got my doctor’s degree in 1949 I really had not heard anything about them.

Then, in 1952, the University of Toronto acquired one of the first two electronic computers ever marketed commercially. It was a Ferranti Mark I computer, a copy of the one at the University of Manchester. In a short space of time I was up to my ears in writing programs, designing operating systems, and developing a new programming language so that more scientists could take advantage of this marvellous new tool for research.

In the process, I got distracted from my own Physics research calculations and was caught up in the birth pains of a new science. Because Computer Science did not become a discipline, recognized by the University of Toronto, until 1964, I remained in the Department of Physics and taught courses in Physics exclusively.

My research interests lay in Computer Science, but as a Physicist, my main role was that of a teacher. In that role I had the good fortune to collaborate with Professor Donald G. Ivey in some very exciting projects in Physics education. This activity ran in parallel with my computer work.

Just as computers were a technological development I knew nothing about until I had finished my formal education, another electronic advance, television, burst upon me quite unexpectedly. In Canada, television was just in its infancy in 1958 when Dr. Ivey and I were invited to prepare and present a series of twelve half-hour programs on Physics for a general audience. I suppose you would call it educational TV. It was to be broadcast, as an early-evening series, on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) station in Toronto. The programs were recorded on film by a process called kinescope. This meant that a movie camera—black and white, of course—was aimed at a tiny TV screen and the program recorded. The film was not to be edited, so the performance was effectively live on film . It was a fantastic experience. To be allowed complete control over the content and presentation for twelve half hours of—local—prime time television was quite a challenge! We loved it; and, as it turned out, the audience loved us.

In the summer of 1959, Don Ivey and I went live over the entire CBC network and most of its affiliated stations, at 10:30 at night, in a second twelve-week series called Two for Physics . Again, the two of us had complete charge of content and presentation. What an opportunity for us! Presenting our subject to an audience larger than any professor could hope to meet in a lifetime of teaching. What a responsibility—to the scientific community and to the University of Toronto!

We tried to present science, and by that I mean physical science, as a human activity that every reasonably well-educated person should know something about. Physics is complicated, and it is not easy to reduce all the technical terminology and mathematical formalism to terms that are accessible to anyone with an open mind. But, our goal was to do our damnedest. Somehow our public, which remember was a minority audience, understood what we were trying to do. They often wrote to us saying “We don’t understand everything you say, but don’t stop trying.”

We really tried to explain Physics in ordinary words and that meant that we had to rethink it for ourselves. No longer could we hide behind terms like kinetic energy or impedance and expect successful communication. Formulas were used only occasionally. We presented Physics without all the paraphernalia that goes with it in an ordinary university course.

Our television work was rebroadcast over the Public Broadcasting System in the United States and, on a Boston channel, caught the eye of Stephen White who was working with the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) in its films for high schools program. This led to our making four movies for PSSC. The first of these, Frames of Reference , was given the Edison award as the best science education film for 1962. Another, Random Events , got a silver medal from the Scientific Institute in Rome.

The experience with PSSC, and particularly with masterminds like Professors Jerrold R. Zacharias and Francis L. Friedman, gave us a whole new insight into Physics education. They were rethinking what was to be taught in high schools. Tradition be damned; everything must be rethought; nothing taken for granted. It had really never occurred to me that I could rethink Physics—perhaps the presentation of physics, but not the subject itself. It was an overwhelming sense of responsibility that it gave us, and an unbelievable feeling of freedom. I had never really questioned fundamentals in Physics. Now I can’t stop. I sympathize with Descartes, the founder of analytic geometry, who believed in the maxim of doubting everything that had up to his time passed as established truth! I became an inveterate doubter.

As I continued to teach Physics, more and more of the established textbook material seemed suspect. Ernst Mach in his unconventional textbook on Heat , published near the end of the nineteenth century, catches my mood as he writes:

Many a reader must have had the experience that, relating generally accepted viewpoints with a certain enthusiasm, he suddenly realizes that the matter no longer comes from the heart. Quiet considerations afterwards usually lead to the discovery of logical discrepancies that once admitted become unbearable.

After we had finished with our television and film work which lasted six years, Dr. Ivey and I launched into a very ambitious project—to write a university-level textbook in Physics. The text—actually in two volumes—was to be based on the PSSC philosophy of questioning, rethinking, and reworking fundamental physics, this time for serious university students in the physical sciences and engineering.

Many of the logical discrepancies I found in Physics have been worked through in our text. We had, as in our television programs, the idea of presenting Physics in all its complexity, not simplifying it just so that it could be easily digested. We presented it in as organized and systematic a way as we could so that a maximum understanding would be possible. The book was published, received excellent reviews, but was not a runaway best seller.

Our job as university professors is to pass along accumulated knowledge so that it can be used by the next generation of scientists as they approach research or apply the information in industrial situations. Well-understood half-truths will not do, unless you believe that a truth half-understood is no better. But, there is the chance that some bright young students will go well beyond half-understanding and that is why we wrote as we did.

Truth is a dangerous word. First of all I am limiting the word truth to the realm of science. I am referring to scientific truth rather than philosophical truth which is a much more general idea encompassing a much broader view of reality. By scientific truth, I mean “the best available interpretation of facts that we have at the moment.” This permits the possibility that we will have a better interpretation of presently available facts, or that we will, in the future, have more facts which may precipitate a reinterpretation. All scientists recognize the tentative character of their scientific knowledge.

This meaning of scientific truth is relative to the current situation, not absolute scientific truth. There might even be two competing interpretations of available facts with no more merit in one than the other. Then to me both interpretations are “true”.

We, as scientists, live in a constantly changing world and our science —or knowledge of the world—is constantly evolving. As Mach puts it, we know we are not finished and we live with the idea:

The highest philosophy of the scientific investigation is precisely this toleration of an incomplete conception of the world and a preference for it rather than an apparently perfect, but inadequate conception [1].

Some scientists believe that there is an absolute scientific truth and that our present scientific truth is coming closer and closer to this absolute. But, I really believe that the notion of an ultimately knowable absolute scientific truth is not appropriate. The idea that we are coming closer, by degrees, toward a true truth is no doubt encouraged by the fact that many of our scientific interpretations—or theories—are evolved from earlier ones. But, there are many counter examples to this idea of a gradual approach to scientific truth. Some abrupt changes in theory have been more revolutionary than evolutionary. Some of them might have been more revolutionary than they needed to be. For example, the quantum theory of the atom was a complete break with scientific tradition. The traditional is sometimes referred to as classical , the revolutionary view of quantum theory as modern .

But theories, call them classical or modern, are interpretations of certain observed facts about the world. These interpretations depend on what facts just happen to be known at any particular time and on the personality of and influences on the scientist. As Thomas Kuhn, the modern philosopher and historian of science, puts it in his book on scientific revolutions:

An apparently arbitrary element, compounded of personal and historical accident, is always a formative ingredient of the beliefs espoused by a given scientific community at a given time. [2]

As science develops, it seems to evolve or revolve on the chance discoveries of fact and the chance nature and influences of the people interpreting the facts. But from these chance events emerges a kind of pattern, an orderliness that some people call the scientific method. Although what this method is I cannot describe concisely.

Most scientists are engaged in what Kuhn calls “normal science,” adding to and evolving what is already there. The results of their experiments or theoretical analyses are published in learned journals so that other scientists need not waste time duplicating the same work. And so the body of knowledge grows. Most of this publication is virtually inaccessible to the public. It is written for an entirely different audience. Much of it is inaccessible to scientists outside the narrow field of specialization, and people live in scientific compartments separated from—if not alienated from—other scientists even in the same discipline, such as Physics. This specialization has become a way of life, since each separate area is extremely complex and often requires a lifetime of concentration to make significant advances.

But there are breakthroughs, often from outside the scientific establishment. Commenting on Einstein’s revolutionary paper published in 1905 on what is known now as special relativity, C.P. Snow notes that its style was not what is normally wanted in scientific journals. Einstein, he said, had a strange poetic freedom and very little mathematics. It would probably not be accepted in today’s journals. But who is to say?

If one has an idea which departs in a major way from the current scientific model, or paradigm, of the world, it is often vigorously resisted by scientists practising normal science, the establishment. And so it should be. We cannot afford to have the orderly development of knowledge sent this way and that like a ship without a rudder every time some crackpot has an idea. Most ideas, like most mutations in biological evolution, are not viable. But, some ideas are viable, Einstein’s for example.

By this time, you can probably tell that I have an idea. It evolved over a period of twenty years. Pieces of it I unsuccessfully have tried to publish in journals—a fact that proves nothing one way or another. My only recourse is to put the case as clearly as I can in a book, a book that is accessible to as many people as possible. This is somewhat of a scientific no-no. As Kuhn points out:

No longer will his [a creative scientist’s] researches usually be embodied in books addressed like Franklin’s Experiments… on Electricity or Darwin’s Origin of Species , to anyone who might be interested in the subject matter of the field. Instead, they will usually appear as brief articles addressed only to professional colleagues, the men whose knowledge of a shared paradigm can be assumed and who prove to be the only ones able to read the papers addressed to them.

Today in the sciences, books are usually either texts or retrospective reflections upon one aspect or another of the scientific life. The scientist who writes one is more likely to find his professional reputation impaired than enhanced. [3]

The state of my reputation will have to take its chances! I have this idea and would at least like someone to give it a hearing. I am encouraged by that old saying “The one who insists on never uttering an error must remain silent.” I cannot remain silent any longer.

But what is the idea? Can I not state it in so many words? Obviously, I must come at it several different ways but let me make a first attempt. The subtitle of this book is called By Chance or By Design and it refers to the universe. Is the present state of the universe the result of chance or design?

I believe that physical science, as it is practised by the establishment, is based on the premise that there is a design in the universe and that the design is discernible by man. I will argue that this widely held premise has its roots in theological thinking and, if closely examined, cannot be supported by actual evidence. It is my thesis that whether or not there is a design is what we in Computer Science call an undecidable question. From our position inside the thing that we are studying, I believe that it is—and always will be—impossible to decide whether it is by chance or design—or even by a mixture of chance and design—that we are here.

What is more important, the assumption that there is discernible design in the universe stops scientists from investigating beyond a certain point. They accept the laws that they have discovered—or contrived—as sufficient explanation of the way things are, and are inclined not to examine them as critically as they ought. In the end, this may hold them back in their attempt to accumulate knowledge about the universe.

For me, general laws imply design and I will try to show that there are no discernible general laws. I will describe how, in the process of looking at laws differently, I was led to a serious reappraisal of many of the well-established ideas in physical science.

Let me quote Charles Darwin in a letter to his friend Joseph Hooker:

I have been now ever since my return [from the voyage on the Beagle] engaged in a very presumptuous work, and I know no one individual who would not say a very foolish one… At last gleams of light have come, and I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable. [4]

Darwin said species are not immutable. By this statement, he was refuting the idea that each species had been designed to fit neatly into its own special place in the overall scheme of creation. But, Darwin still believed that behind evolution there lay laws that govern that evolution. In particular he believed that laws, such as the law of gravity, govern the behavior of the physical world. My thesis is that the evidence of design in the physical world that we have through the existence of laws is an illusion; that there is no evidence of a plan of creation or unity of design in any scientific knowledge that we have.

I return to Darwin, this time from The Origin of Species which was first published in 1859:

Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume under the form of an abstract, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine. It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the “plan of creation,” “unity of design,” etc., and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact. Anyone whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject my theory. A few naturalists, endowed with much flexibility of mind, and who have already begun to doubt on the immutability of species, may be influenced by the volume; but I look with confidence to the future, to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality. [5]

Scientists see order in the world; without order there could be no science. This order stems, most say, from the existence of laws that govern the behavior of all matter. Some will say instead that the laws describe the behavior, not govern it; but the result is about the same. General or universal laws that describe—or govern—the behavior of a large class of different objects seem to indicate design. But, I claim all these general laws, when closely examined, can be shown not to be general laws.

In this chapter I have introduced myself as a somewhat unconventional scientist, not without credentials. I have indicated some of the influences on my thinking because I believe that it is important to be aware of the environment of scientific thought. One of my principal points later on is that we have too often ignored the environment, in say a physical interaction between two objects, as if it did not matter. Surely, one of the major points of Darwin’s theory of evolution is that the environment matters. Darwin, in several important ways, is a starting point for me and in the next chapter I will show how my ideas about the inanimate world are a logical extension of his ideas about the animate world.

0 TrackBacks

Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: Getting Started | On Beyond Darwin - Chapter 1.

TrackBack URL for this entry: