U n i v e r s i t é  Y O R K   U n i v e r s i t y
S C I E N C E   A N D   T E C H N O L O G Y   S T U D I E S



Lecture 24:  Concluding Remarks

| Prev | Search | Syllabus | Selected References | Home |



  • Consider the following words by Harold McGee, the author of that great book, referenced in Lecture 19, which is On Food and Cooking. The Science and Lore of the Kitchen:
    "Most writers on food either ignore the scientific principles, high or low, that underlie cooking, or else disparage the value of such information on the grounds that art cannot be reduced to the test tube. Experience, intuition, and a discriminating palate, they imply, are what really count. Of course, there is a great deal of truth in this attitude, as the traditional form of writing about food attests. Cookbooks are, after all, sets of explicit directions developed by an expert, and are meant to help us prepare food [ … ] without the distraction of having to think. On the other hand, amateurs who have not yet logged years at the stove might well profit from an explanation of the order that governs this sometimes disorderly pursuit. A general understanding of what is going on in the pan, together with a little thinking, can compensate for a lack of familiarity with particular ingredients or techniques. And many people, serious cooks or not, may simply be curious about what foods actually are and how cooking works."
    [ op. cit., p. xiii ]
    Such words apply of course not only to cooking, but to just about everything we encounter, experience, and use. If this is indeed the case, then a problem arises: we are already so busy with our everyday life, that it is probably impossible to make room for the general curiosity McGee talks about.

    This course is an attempt to enhance curiosity to the point where we see the necessity to make room for it, at least in those areas that affect us most, personally. Knowledge, to be meaningful, must have a personal dimension.
    "… I have come to the conclusion that the principle by which the cyclist keeps his balance is not generally known. The rule observed by the cyclist is this. When he starts falling to the right he turns the handlebars to the right, so that the course of the bicycle is deflected along a curve towards the right. This results in a centrifugal force pushing the cyclist to the left and offsets the gravitational force dragging him down to the right. This manoeuvre presently throws the cyclist out of balance to the left, which he counteracts by turning the handlebars to the left; and so he continues to keep himself in balance by winding along a series of appropriate curves. A simple analysis shows that for a given angle of unbalance the curvature of each winding is inversely proportional to the square of the speed at which the cyclist is proceeding.

    But does this tell us exactly how to ride a bicycle? No. You obviously cannot adjust the curvature of your bicycle's path in proportion to the ratio of your unbalance over the square of your speed; and if you could you would fall off the machine, for there are a number of other factors to be taken into account in practice which are left out in the formulation of this rule. Rules of art can be useful, but they do not determine the practice of an art; they are maxims, which can serve as a guide to an art only if they can be integrated into the practical knowledge of the art. They cannot replace this knowledge."
    [ from Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge. Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, U of Chicago Press, 1974 ]
    Polanyi's words are important: to become acquainted with science does not mean we must discard our experience, and our arts and skills. We do need, however, to reconcile in some way the two views of things: science and experience. There is no general recipe for doing this, that's why knowledge, even scientific knowledge, must be personal, 'to some extent.' I say 'to some extent,' because I don't want to create the false impression that science is entirely a subjective matter, a form of personal belief. The very nature of science (testing and re-testing hypotheses, public sharing of results, etc.) is such that it transcends personal beliefs, and although its results can never be considered literally as the final truth, the broad, expert consensus it demands confers to science an unusally solid foundation.

    Read what Jay Ingram, the author of The Science of Everyday Life (Penguin Books, 1989, 1994), says about these issues:
    "In Victorian England, some of the most prominent scientists of the day took the time to give public lectures explaining the science of the everyday world. Not anymore: even those scientists today who appear on television and radio do not bother to spend much time on everyday things. Their science, the science of the late twentieth century, deals with forces and objects that are for the most part beyond our understanding.
    We're a little poorer for being ignorant about the science of everyday life. For one thing, it's an approachable kind of science for anyone who's been intimidated by the subject since high school
    [ … ] more important, it makes life more interesting if you understand your world better."
    In Victorian times, which saw science become a professional institution, it was fairly generally agreed that to popularize science is part of the very definition of the scientist's work, and of course, as Ingram implies, Victorian science was generally about more familiar forces and objects than today's science. Yet, even esoteric areas of science have often managed to have a very serious impact on our everyday life. Think of genetics, nuclear energy, climate studies, space exploration, and so on, and the issues of public policy and ethics they raise. Freedom, democracy require, by definition, that citizens participate in the discussion and resolution of these issues.
  • The problem is made more difficult by the fact that it's not at all obvious which facets of our everyday experience hide, just below their surface, a lot of accessible science. Think of the familiar foam in your bubble bath, or in your kitchen sink, or in your cappuccino, and consider the incredible cousins this humble thing actually has:
    "We live in a universe inundated with foam. It may be startling to realize that such an airy substance carries true scientific weight. At the planetary scale, there is the foam of ocean whitecaps that covers millions of square miles and influences the world's climate. Pumice, a type of foamy rock emitted from volcanoes, carries clues to the geologic history of the Earth. At the cosmic scale, the billions of galaxies making up the universe are arranged as if they lay on the surfaces of immense bubbles within a gargantuan foam." [ from S Perkowitz, Universal Foam. From Cappuccino to the Cosmos, Walker & Co., NY 2000, p. 2 - 3 ]
    Or think about the "anecdotal notion that 'you are only ever six degrees of separation away from anybody else on the planet," as we discussed it in Lecture 7. Here is the argument D J Watts, one of the pioneers in this kind of research, develops to persuade us these are important and relevant matters:
    "Why should anybody care about the small-world phenomenon? [ … Consider ]  problems concerned with devising more effective schemes of marketing products or ideas, exerting influence in organizations, defining the representativeness of political bodies, and even hunting for a job [ … ] The applications of this kind of research both encompass and stretch well beyond sociological problems, including:

    1. The emergence and evolution of cooperative behavior in large organisations, whose structural nature is allowed to vary.
    2. The spread of everything from computer viruses to infectious or sexually transmitted diseases.
    3. The processing of information in spatially extended and irregularly connected networks such as the human brain.
    4. The design of power and communication networks (such as the Internet or cellular phone networks) to ensure rapid and cost-efficient transmission without sacrificing robustness.
    5. The emergence of global computational capability from locally connected systems.
    6. The synchronization of biological oscillators, such as neurons in the brain.
    7. The train of thought followed in a conversation or succession of ideas to a scientific breakthrough …
    8. New theories of market economics that account for the network nature of transactions.
    9. Improved search algorithms for optimal strategies to complex problems.
    10. The formation and spread of fame, fads, and social movements.
    11. A rigorous proof that Kevin Bacon really is the centre of the civilized world, and, if not, who is? …

    [ from D J Watts, Small Worlds. The Dynamics of Networks between Order and Randomness, Princeton UP, Princeton and Oxford 1999, p. 6 - 8 ]
    It is indeed rather unlikely that this vast and important set of problems could be discerned by the non-scientists under the seemingly trivial idea of 'six degrees of separation.' It would seem therefore that we are left in a difficult quandary. Only by learning some science can we be persuaded that it is important to know some science. It is not easy to overcome this paradox. Yet, only by overcoming it can we, as responsible citizens, participate fully in our society.
  • Perhaps one of the greatest, most heroic attempts to solve the riddle was the publication, between 1751 and 1772, of D Diderot and J d'Alembert's Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers, par une Société de Gens de Lettre. A huge work: 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of plates.


    Title Page of the 'Encyclopédie' (1751)

    Title Page of the Encyclopédie (1751)


    As Diderot wrote, "This is a work that cannot be completed except by a society of men of letters and skilled workmen, each working separately on his own part, but all bound together solely by their zeal for the best interests of the human race and a feeling of mutual goodwill." The basic idea was to help "change the common way of thinking." Read a brief excerpt from  Read ! Jean Le Rond d'Alembert: Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot.

    What sets this monumental work apart from more recent encyclopedias is the coverage (not just science, but arts and trades), and the intended use (not a 'coffee-table book' for the well-to-do, but a comprenhesive, yet practical manual for all responsible citizens).

    It is indeed in the true spirit of the Encyclopédie that this course was conceived, and I hope I succeeded in communicating to you the (at least moral) necessity to learn some basic science, as well as the excitment of discovering how much lies hidden under modest, simple, everyday objects and events.

Readings, Resources and Questions


© Copyright Luigi M Bianchi 2003-2005
Picture Credits: Wikipedia ·
Last Modification Date: 03 April 2006