Abracadabra: Language, Memory, Representation


Science Made vs. Science in the Making

A recent article in the New York Times (December 31, 2002) by Dennis Overbye starts out "In science, no truth is forever, not even perhaps Einstein's theory of relativity, the pillar of modernity that gave us E=mc2." It goes on to add "Guided by ambiguous signals from the heavens, and by the beauty of their equations, a few brave—or perhaps foolhardy—physicists now say that relativity may have limits and will someday have to be revised."

What does it mean to say that "no truth is forever"? Surely Mr. Overbye is Overstating the case, surely we must know some things that are forever? Don't we?

Consider instead, that what Mr. Overbye means is that science is always in the process of becoming truer. Often, when we talk about science we think we are referring to 'facts' plain and simple. Facts that have been proven to be true and are no longer in question. We like to tell ourselves that facts are there, like stalactites or stars, and most importantly, they are that way independent of us.

But science-- as the study of phenomena-- is always the study by humans of something (at least until we make contact with aliens). So why not approach science, the practice of doing science, the same way we approach mountains and stars: to observe it, to ask about the practices, and to try to explain what exactly science is made of.

So this class is one way of trying to explore science as something that human beings do. In particular it is one that focusses on the way language, memory and writing are used. Take the example I started with: what are "ambiguous signals" and what are "the beauty of equations"? The article says:

The avatars of new relativity have been encouraged by hints that some cosmic rays hitting Earth from outer space have more energy than normal physics can explain. But some scientists doubt that these rays exist or, if they do, that a violation of relativity is the only way to explain them.

Physicists can be said to know that some rays are hitting the earth with high energy, meaning they can be somehow measured and recorded. But other scientists can be heard to say: those rays don't exist, our beautiful equations say they cannot.

In both cases, there are representations at stake: in one case they are measurements produced by machines, maybe data points on graph; in the other they are mathematical equations that are assumed to describe or predict how those dots can fall. Somewhere along the line, physicists had to be trained to understand these things, and somewhere along the line there had to be enough agreement to decide on just what those beautiful equations say and how to measure those ambiguous signals. This is part of an ongoing human and social process.

While we will not study physics in this class, there will be many other cases where we will be able to see multiple representations of the same thing. It is important to realize that we cannot assume from the outset that science is finished, made, correct and unalterably so. It is contingent and historically specific, which does not mean arbitrary; it does, however, mean that it might have been otherwise.

But it is also important to realize, that in looking at things like memory, writing and representation we include much more that is not science, like religion and art. It should become clear to you that there is nothing about the activities of science that make it fundamentally different from those of religion or art, and as such, it is much less obvious what makes science scientific.

A Page from John Wilkins Essay Towards a Real Character, 1668
Christopher Kelty
Last modified: Mon Jan 27 18:08:07 CST 2003