What shall we look into now?

John Ziman

  • The Advancement of Science and its Burdens by Gerald Holton
    Cambridge, 351 pp, £27.50, October 1986, ISBN 0 521 25244 X

Nearly half the essays in this book are about Einstein, and the way he searched for a unified Weltbild – a coherent image of all reality. His lifelong task as a scientist was to puzzle out the cosmic jigsaw. He succeeded in finding a link between the pieces labelled ‘electromagnetism’ and ‘mechanics’ and showed that the piece labelled ‘gravitation’ belonged next to the one labelled ‘geometry’, but he failed to fit them all together with a single formula. The advance of physics since Einstein’s heyday has not really solved that particular problem, even though two new forces have been uncovered and one of them is closely connected with electromagnetism.

Einstein is dead, but there is no awakening from the dream of a unified theory. It crept into the consciousness of the West in antiquity, was given flesh and blood by the Medieval Church, and was then redefined more starkly by Descartes and Newton. It became the leitmotiv of many great scientists such as Faraday and Helmholtz – not to mention a host of lesser figures such as Hans Christian Oersted, whose work is celebrated in one of these essays. Unification is the Supreme Project of Science, metaphysical and religious in inspiration. Curiosity can only end with an understanding of the nature of all things.

The integrity of Einstein’s scientific commitment was matched by his clarity concerning its means and ends. In his writings he is, as he said of God, ‘subtle, but not malicious’. From them Holton teases out his presuppositions, his approach to theory and experience, his ways of conceiving new models, and his attitude to the realities thus represented. An eloquent chapter analyses the accomplishments of the intellectual innovator as a shaper of the imagination of his era. Holton deals sharply with fashionable gurus who incorporate half-baked versions of relativity or quantum mechanics into their grand philosophical or theological schemes. Einstein’s thought was elevated, but he was no mystagogue.

Nor, indeed, did he regard his work as revolutionary. Scientists are well aware that they build on the solid achievements of the past. A novel contribution is seldom more than an extension or a revision of what everybody thought they knew already. The strength of Einstein’s bridge between electromagnetism and mechanics was that it linked structures that were solidly built and firmly based. Some modern philosophers of science – notably Thomas Kuhn – have since argued that such a development has to be considered a radical reformulation of the whole Weltbild. Einstein and his contemporaries always insisted that they could only see it as an evolutionary development within a continuous intellectual tradition.

In Holton’s own view, firm threads of historical continuity are provided by what he has taught us to call ‘themata’. In every era, scientists fall back on these ‘enduring elements ... somewhat like the old melodies to which each generation writes its new words’. Einstein, for example, was guided by long-established notions of formal symmetry and simplicity, of causality, completeness, continuity and cosmological scope. Another scientist – Niels Bohr, for example – might have favoured somewhat different thematic principles, but there was only a limited list from which either could have chosen. In fact, the measure of the greatness of both Einstein and Bohr is that each added one or two new and powerful themata to the common stock.

Thematic analysis must surely be one of the ways to an evolutionary account of the advancement of science. But it is not an easy path to understanding. In this latest book, Holton does not clear up my uncertainty about the distinction between a thema and a metaphor. Some of his themata – ‘atom’, for instance, and ‘field’ – undoubtedly have metaphorical roots, but he insists that not all scientific metaphors are to be counted as themata, however much insight they may convey. Where and how does he draw the line? It isn’t frivolous to point out that modern physics is using anthropomorphic metaphors, such as the ‘birth’ of a ‘strange’ particle, just at a time when psychology is studiously representing its findings in terms of strictly impersonal themata, such as ‘feedback’ and ‘data-banks’. Is this not another manifestation of that striving for a unified representation of the world?

As an Einstein fan, I appreciate this sympathetic and sensitive approach to the philosophy of his work. In an interesting essay, Holton suggests that concern among scientists about the ethics of their profession has displaced their former interest in the deeper meaning of their discoveries. Perhaps they realise how difficult it has become to keep the philosophy of nature aimed at the moving targets of contemporary physical theory. It took us a generation to swallow the relativity of time: we can wait a bit longer, until we are sure we have understood what happened in the Big Bang, before we rejig our traditional notions of eternity. Nevertheless, something vital is missing from the particular philosophy of science which is assumed as a background for this book. It describes research as the activity of individuals, without regard for the relationships between them. Einstein was untypical, not only in his genius but also in his capacity to work fruitfully on his own. But even he, in his middle years in Berlin, behaved like most of his colleagues, exchanging information with them, trying out ideas on them and reacting to their criticism.

The continual interaction between individuals gives science its strength. We accept Einstein’s solutions to certain problems of physics because they were convincing to other physicists who were puzzled by the same problems. The individual scientist is playing a social role in a collective enterprise devoted to the generation of a publicly agreed body of knowledge. Theoretical unification, for example, is more than a personal predilection: it is characteristic of science because it is an effective way of resolving the contradictions that can arise between schemes of thought developed independently by different groups within the scientific community.

The absence of a sociological dimension is a more serious defect in the second half of the book, where Holton deals with various aspects of the place of science in modern society. In these later essays his mind is still unconsciously focused on the part played by a small circle of almost unique individuals devoted to a particularly abstruse branch of knowledge. I get the feeling that he is looking down from on high at all the other people and ideas in science. In spite of his wide scholarship and humanity, he shares the tree-tops viewpoint of a certain class of academic physicists and cannot do justice to the thoughts and feelings that grow up from the grass roots of society.

For example, he carefully distinguishes between ‘science’, dominated by the imperative of ‘omniscience’, and ‘technology’, whose historical imperative he sees as ‘omnipotence’. These two distinct circles, he says, expanded independently, until they began to overlap with one another, and with a third circle labelled ‘society’. The historian of highbrow physics thus sets himself apart from whole disciplines of systematic observation and intellectual ferment which have never been separated from the practical arts out of which they were born. I am not here raising the controversial issue of the shaping of scientific world-pictures by socio-technical factors. I am simply pointing to the depth of understanding, width of coverage and historical length of such solid bodies of organised knowledge as geology, say, or human biology. These are true sciences, more pragmatic and empirical than physics, perhaps, but just as subtle philosophically, and just as nobly motivated by curiosity.

In these essays, the great technologies themselves, such as engineering and medicine, are treated with due respect for their power, but with little love. The needs they provide for and the virtuosity they elicit are not quite on the same plane as the desire and pursuit of the whole. We could have been reminded that the equations of Einstein and his successors were generated out of the observation of exquisitely contrived events in subtly designed material apparatus, and that the most awe-inspiring products of modern physics – the atom bombs, the lasers, the microprocessors – explicable and imaginable as they may be by reduction from tree-tops principles, were made workable and constructible by a synthesis of all the deeply rooted crafts of engineering.

For this reason, it seems to me that Holton both overestimates the historical discontinuity between the ‘three previously separate fundamental imperatives, those that animate progress, respectively, in science, technology, and society’, and underestimates the degree to which this discontinuity has now been eliminated. At the academic level these circles may just seem to be overlapping, but down below, in real life, they are interpenetrating and fusing together. Look at any TV programme on Aids. The scientific, the technological and the political (not to mention the ethical, the emotional and the aesthetic) are rationally interconnected in such a tight web that it doesn’t make sense to disentangle them.

This many-sided, multi-coloured activity is what we now have to think of when we talk of ‘science’. What can we do with it, now that we have got it? In the Fifties and Sixties, as new strains of technology began to emerge out of the high sciences of quantum physics and molecular biology, it did seem for a while as if Bacon’s dream of ‘affecting all things possible’ could at last be realised. To use one of Holton’s own metaphors, it was almost as if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would soon be routed by the four forces of physics. But that, too, was an illusion of top-down vision. For those who look upwards from the bottom, even the barest needs of life still seem far out of reach.

More sober now, we know that we can never succeed in effecting all things possible. Yet we are not without hope in seeking the means to effect some that are desirable. What things are desirable? In what direction should we try to steer the bulldozer, gouging a path over what mountain, to what goal? At this point, where the real action ought to begin, Holton retires into generalities. In one essay he advocates a combination of discipline-oriented and problem-oriented research stimulated by the sense of ‘an area of basic scientific ignorance that seems to lie at the heart of a social problem’. Surely we have been hearing something like that for nearly fifty years, since J.D. Bernal wrote The Social Function of Science – indeed, for more than three hundred and fifty years, since Bacon’s New Atlantis.

Applying science to social problems is easier said than done. As Holton rightly points out, if the Four Freedoms epitomise our social values, then there is no technological fix – probably not even a sociological one – for the loss of three of them. On the contrary, the advancement of science and its associated technologies is seen by many as the major threat to both freedom of speech and freedom from fear – if not to freedom of worship. In any case, somebody has to decide what problems ought to be tackled. That somebody has to have a very long purse. Science is much too expensive to be undertaken out of sheer benevolence. Its costs can only be met by bodies with very large financial resources. Industrial firms say, quite reasonably, that they have other fish to fry: in fact, British industry is not spending enough on R & D even to fry its own fish properly. It is now entirely accepted that science should be supported by the state and directed toward meeting the needs of the nation. But those needs do not define themselves: they are what the Government says they are. In the political circles where such matters are decided, commercial and military research gets a much higher priority than research related to ‘social problems’, so that is the way the money flows.

The procedures differ from country to country, but the effects are much the same everywhere. In our political system, each government department can spend what it likes on research in direct support of its mission – defence, or agriculture, or whatever. The national agenda for science is not determined centrally: it is a side-product of the competition for resources in Whitehall. If the Cabinet is persuaded that we should spend a lot on buying guns, then lots of our science is about gun-making and gunnery: now that we have too much butter, dairy science goes down the drain.

The central organs of government – the Cabinet Office and the Treasury – exert a more general influence on science policy. The Thatcher Government is obsessed with the desire for a quick turn-around in our economic affairs. As a result, research that promises a definite commercial return within a few years is favoured over research with vaguer, longer-term goals. Short shrift is given to areas of basic scientific ignorance that might be at the heart of social ills whose cost cannot be measured in hard cash.

Current debate over science policy revolves around the allocation of public money to various sectors of the research system. Less military and more civil, says the House of Lords. Less to weak university departments and more to strong ones, says the University Grants Committee. More for basic science, says the Royal Society. British science is still thought to be pretty good, but could rapidly fall behind. More for all science, says everybody, except the Treasury, which says nothing and keeps its fist tight.

Holton, writing as an American, has deeper disquiets. He argues forcefully for urgent, sustained and generous action by the Federal Government to get American education out of the shambles into which it has fallen in recent years. This leads naturally into his Jefferson lecture, which gives the title to the book and which focuses on the gulf that has opened between scientists and citizens over the possibility or the desirability of technical progress. Democracy and technology must learn to respect and embrace one another if they are to live happily together for much longer. Pleas for better public understanding of the nature of science and technology are fashionable these days, but seldom so thoughtfully or eloquently expressed.

The trouble is that democracies are just as greedy about getting the golden eggs out of science as more autocratic forms of government. Science is expected, eventually, to deliver the goods. The academics have to explain why the country should go on paying people to do research simply to satisfy their curiosity. When the bluff of the old ‘what’s the use of a new-born baby?’ ploy was called, the notion of ‘strategic’ research came into currency. It is not difficult, after all, to suggest possible long-term utilitarian implications for almost all research, however academic it may be in its immediate goals.

Once these hypothetical strategic aims have been formulated, however, the demand comes that they be achieved. In the name of political accountability and economic efficiency, all science must be directed to generate the material benefits and appropriable profits that seemed to have been promised. A tenuous practical argument for exploring ‘an area of basic scientific ignorance’ is translated into a managerial objective. A large-scale research programme is targeted on what happened at one moment to look like an ‘exploitable area’. Vannevar Bush’s Law comes into operation: ‘Under the pressure for immediate results, and unless deliberate policies are set up to guard against this, applied science invariably drives out pure.’

The big political issue for science is not how to draw up a shopping-list of desirable research objectives, nor whether some sorts of science should be limited for ethical reasons: it is how to run basic science. Somebody has to decide what the questions are to be, and how they should be tackled. Everyone agrees that the latter can be left to the technical experts – typically, by peer review. It is the responsibility of a non-technical authority, political or commercial, to define very broadly the area to be investigated. But in basic science the researchers themselves usually have a much better idea of what questions are worth asking from a scientific point of view than outsiders who can only guess at the potential utility of the likely answers. Curiosity and scepticism are more effective than systematic planning.

The traditional institutions of academic science had a way of motivating individuals to compete and co-operate for the advancement of knowledge. That was how thousands of individuals far less talented than Einstein generated the great system of ideas to which he contributed so notably. Can this sort of loosely-linked structure still be maintained within a larger, more rigid framework of socially-defined and financed strategic goals? Our existing stock of knowledge and its applications is already so complex that we do not even know what it is that we are ignorant of. It is really going to be very difficult to devise new institutional arrangements for a professional activity that can have, as Holton puts it, ‘a just claim to more authority when, and only when, it is widely seen to honour both truth and the public interest’.