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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Progress in Gerontology

"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.
[h/t: Siris]

5 comments:

  1. Planck said it more succinctly (albeit also more generally): "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its 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."

    Unless, of course, your name is Robert Bakker.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Whoever paraphrased it as 'Science advances one funeral at a time' get points for pithiness.

      I wonder what we've lost by not being aware (as I was not aware) there ever even was Vortex theory of gravity. Sounds way cool, in a steampunk way.

      Which brings me to the following joke headline:

      Phlogiston blamed in antique shop fire

      Delete
    2. Sure, but Whewell said it first and backed it up with reason and example. Planck was making a quip.

      Delete
    3. Like I said, "albeit more generally".

      Delete
  2. Even more ironic: according to modern understanding of General Relativity spacetime is often depicted very much like a vortex around a rotating mass.
    I find it interesting that for all our scientific advancement there is still this subtle feeling that we're really just bouncing back and forth between ancient ideas.

    ReplyDelete

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