Science as a Way Off the Wheel
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Categories: Modern, Not an expert

Science as a Way Off the Wheel

a damaged stone carving of a wheel of fortune
A wheel of fortune in the Museo Civico, Verona. To minds before the 20th century, the wheel of fortune was not a toy but a thing as terrible as tetanus. Photo by Sean Manning, 2018.

It is easier to banish a habit of thought than a piece of knowledge.

H. Beam Piper, Uller Uprising (1952)

One reason why science is so important to me is that it is a way off the wheel of life. Many of the things we do in life just keep life going: we cook, we clean, we repair our homes, we raise our children and care for our elders. These things are honourable but they never end.

Some of the things we do in life just stir the pot and change who is in fresh air and who is close to the flames. There is no time’s arrow in personal politics. People within a society might care which thug is in charge, but people outside a society would have trouble saying that one would be better for that society as a whole. And what one generation does, another generation can undo. It is an axiom in my country that no parliament can bind its successors.

The manual arts do progress from time to time. But they are still governed by taste and prone to forgetting. Sometimes dark colours are fashionable and sometimes bright; sometimes customers like detailed designs and sometimes smooth blocky designs. Hundreds of clever people are working to rediscover skills of iron-smelting which used to be second nature to peasants in many parts of the world because the peasants stopped teaching their sons and nobody wrote down how they did it. So work in the manual arts is often two steps forward, one step back.

But when we look at science, we see that old ideas do become indefensible and new ideas appear for the first time. People can resist for a long time, but eventually they die and their students, who don’t have their reputation invested in one way of thinking, choose another which seems to work better. Max Planck noticed this early in the last century. And because of the publication ethic and the mass-production of books, progress is not lost when people die or tastes in education change. Curious people can always find the essential publications and bring themselves back up to speed. It will never again be defensible that all matter consists of four elements or that space is Cartesian.

Most of the things we learn in science are of no importance whatsoever except that they satisfy our curiosity. People can survive without science, but they can’t survive without cooking and childcare and woodworking and toolmaking. But in science, we are not Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill. We are in almost everything else we do in life, but not in science. And in a cold uncaring universe, that is something important to me.

Further Reading: Isaac Asimov, “On the Relativity of Wrong”

(scheduled 28 September 2021)

2 thoughts on “Science as a Way Off the Wheel

  1. russell1200 says:

    Do distinguish between science and its close cousin engineering?

    Engineering doesn’t require science -they did build pyramids after all – but science super powers engineering.

    On the flip side, poor emphasis on what you decide to engineer (and then build) can make the enabling science look a little iffy: nuclear power, even the internal combustion engine, are often put in this category.

    I am not a big fan of “staying on the wheel” but it’s risky when you jump off of it.

    1. Sean says:

      For the figure of speech in this post, engineering is tricky because one side often gets lost. There was an interesting piece in Wired or Ars Technica about how the design for the Saturn V rocket was useless by the 1980s or the 1990s because there were not enough cheap enough metalworkers in the United States to build it in the way that made sense in the 1960s. Are modern approaches which rely on computer power more ‘advanced’ than approaches which rely on highly skilled welders and drill operators using their judgement? So engineering seems in a weird place between practical craft knowledge (which grows out of experience and depends on a specific context) and theoretical science (which is much more durable and progressive).

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