Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Old Passes with the Old

Max Planck famously said (in the Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers -- an absolutely beautiful book, if you haven't read it):

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

He wasn't the first person to make this sort of observation, though. Whewell said it earlier:

The history of science suggests the reflection that it is very difficult for the same person at the same time to do justice to two conflicting theories. Take for example the Cartesian hypothesis of vortices and the Newtonian doctrine of universal gravitation. The adherents of the earlier opinion resisted the evidence of the Newtonian theory with a degree of obstinacy and captiousness which now appears to us quite marvellous: while on the other hand, since the complete triumph of the Newtonians, they have been unwilling to allow any merit at all to the doctrine of the vortices. It cannot but seem strange, to a calm observer of such changes, that in a matter which depends upon mathematical proofs, the whole body of the mathematical world should pass over, as in this and similar cases they seem to have done, from an opinion confidently held, to its opposite. No doubt this must be, in part, ascribed to the lasting effects of eduction and early prejudice. The old opinion passes away with the old generation: the new theory grows to its full vigour when its congenital disciples grow to be masters. John Bernoulli continues a Cartesian to the last; Daniel, his son, is a Newtonian from the first.

[William Whewell, "Of the Transformation of Hypotheses in the History of Science," presented before the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 19 May 1851.]

Perhaps the point can be put this way: living scientists are great; but it's a good thing that scientists don't live forever.

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