Understanding Science

John Maynard Smith

This is a translation of a book first published under the title Das Spiel in 1975. It is an ambitious book whose aim is to convey to the reader what it is to have a well-furnished scientific mind. Some years back, C.P. Snow persuaded us that the diagnostic characteristic of such a mind is familiarity with the second law of thermodynamics. His particular choice of a scientific law was unfortunate, because it is easier to talk nonsense about the second law than almost anything else, but in principle he was on the right track. A knowledge of theories is more relevant than a knowledge of facts. Biologists have to know a lot of facts, while physicists seem to know almost nothing. But although it is true that a well-educated scientist will be familiar with a number of theories, from Newton’s laws to the central dogma of molecular biology, I do not think that this is the critical distinction between understanding science and not understanding it. I suggest, instead, that it is a familiarity with the ways in which systems with different structures and relationships are likely to behave. It is this familiarity that Eigen and Winkler try to convey.

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