Observation, Experiment, Conclusion: the Three Princes of Serendip_essay_Philosophy of Science
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  • 1. KTH Royal Institute of Technology Philosophy of Science Observation, Experiment, Conclusion: the Three Princes of Serendip Author: Ioanna Tsalouchidou October 21, 2012 Supervisor: Magnus Boman
  • 2. Observation, Experiment, Conclusion: the Three Princes of Serendip 1 1 Introduction In the scientific world, and more specifically in the world of scientific research, chance plays a controversial role. For many scientists chance is a factor seldom acknowledged, since sometimes it wrongly implies the disqualification of the scientists themselves. On the other hand, many scientists and philosophers of science recognize the importance of chance in scientific research, when it is combined with the wisdom of the scientist and his ability to transform it into knowledge. In many cases, the role of chance is so profound that it is inevitable for thinkers and philosophers of science to discuss about it. Chance can impact the scientists, the process of the scientific research and the research products, either by evolving them, or by restricting them or even by changing their route and direction [6]. In this essay we describe the meaning of chance and wisdom in the scientific world. By giving examples of the history of the science we try to identify in which ways and in what extend chance can be combined with the mentality of the scientist and therefore to affect the scientific research. We categorize these examples by the process of conceiving an idea, the methods that the idea is tested and the results that come out of the testing [14]. Then we examine the different ways that the factor of chance has influenced the scientists, their methods and their scientific products. 1 Serendip is the former name for Sri Lanka. The title is formed based upon the Persian fairy tale “The three princes of Serendip ”. On their way to Serendip, the three princes had many adventures due to the accidents happening to them. In all the different stories of the fairytale the three princes managed to use their wisdom in order to produce knowledge and overcome their difficulties. 1
  • 3. 2 The Role of Chance and Sagacity in Scientific Discoveries In order to discuss about chance and sagacity in scientific discoveries it is more wise to define these two terms as they are used in this essay, since both terms are highly controversial and their meaning is often misinterpreted. For this reason we will try to give the intension of these two words, based on the Aristotelian notion of the essence and accident. [17] 2.1 Indeterminism: the Essential Property of Chance To begin with he will talk about the meaning of chance as it was described by Aristotle. For him, chance and spontaneity are a different type of cause of some things. For Aristotle, chance is more related to the conception of coincidence, which means the difference between the intention of one person and the actual result that occurs. For Aristotle, luck is a different kind of chance that it can be applied only to humans, since it entails the conception of moral actions, choice and liberation [3]. On the other hand, Hume, refers to chance as a word with mere negative meaning since it implies the lack of cause. For Hume, cause is the essence of existence whereas chance is the negation of cause. More than this, chance can only destroy any determination of though and set the mind only in the native situation of indifference [8]. Moreover, Hume insists that our actions in order to be free should be hooked to our will and therefore can never be the outcome of chance, that in his point of view is universally allowed not to exist [9]. For the needs of this essay, chance will be considered as having the essential property of indeterminism . Under this concept, a by-chance event will be the event that happened either because it was caused, or not caused deterministically prior to other events. More specifically, indeterminism will be conceived as “the doctrine that not all events in the physical world are predetermined with absolute precision” as it is described by Karl Popper in his essay From Clouds and Clocks [16]. More than the essential property of chance, which as described above is the indeterminism, we can give to the term some accidental properties such as tychism . Tychism, as described by Charles Peirce, is the absolute chance, that lacks any de2
  • 4. termination, a notion which is well supported by Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle [13]. 2.2 Wisdom: the Essential Property of Sagacity Wisdom and sagacity are two notions that are extremely vague. The meaning of wisdom was the subject of thinking of many philosophers along the centuries, giving to it different intension each time [15]. Starting from Heraclitus, wisdom has the intension of attunement . Thus, for Heraclitus ”wisdom is not the knowledge of many things but the perception of the underlying unity of warring opposites” as Burnet expresses it [5]. Socrates, on the other hand, gives an other meaning to the word. For him wisdom tends to be the insight of ones limitations, a notion put beautifully into the linguistic terms:”I know that I know nothing”. Aristotle in Metaphysics defines the term as the understanding of the causes and thus to know why things happen to be in the certain way they are. Finally, for the needs of this essay, wisdom will be perceived as ”the right use of knowledge”, a linguistic form thanks to Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Trying to define sagacity we can express it as the soundness of judgement. Not only the ability to achieve solid judgements but also the actual correct judgement at the correct moment. Expressing it into the Aristotles terms of essential and accidental properties, we can infer that the essence of sagacity is wisdom. Moreover, we can find several accidental properties, such as innovation, creativity and even inspiration, conceived as the sudden creativity. 2.3 Serendipity: Chance and Sagacity The word serendipity was constructed and first used by the historian Horace Walpole in 1975. The word was formed from the Persian fairytale: ”The Three Princes of Serendip”, in which the three heroes on their way to Serendip ”were making discoveries by accidents and sagacity”. In 2004 the word serendipity, was voted to be one of the most difficult words to be translated, since it entails the notions of chance and sagacity. As we saw before the meanings can diverse, depending on the philosophical point of view of 3
  • 5. each individual. In general, it combines the delightful chance to encounter unexpected information, with the achievement of the intellectual leap, to conceiving the information and arrive to the insight. This unexpected information that one can encounter can be either relevant to his goal or not, but still he can manages to transform it to knowledge [2]. From the above description, we could infer that the word serendipity entails the ”rational reconstruction” of the thought process and of the steps that led a scientist to the discovery, provided that their thoughts were triggered by a sparkle of unexpected information [14]. 3 The Role of Chance in the History of Research Searching through the history of scientific research, we can find may examples where the paradigm shift [11, Ch IX] was due to factors that were not determined by the researchers. In some other cases observations and metaphors that scientist did in their everyday life, proved to be the most significant factor of inspiration for them. More than that, we can even mention some unlucky incidents that not only prevented the evolution of the research or the researchers themselves, but in some cases distorted the observed results. 3.1 Lucky Accidents in Experiments One of the most famous stories in the history of scientific research is the identification of penicillium mold. The significance of the story is not only related with the factor of chance but also with the huge impact that this discovery had in the whole humanity. During the 1928, Dr. Alexander Fleming [1] was in the middle of his research of the property of staphylococci. When he returned to his laboratory after his summer vacations he realized that one of his experimental cultures was contaminated by mold. Instead of throwing it, Fleming decided to examine it more closely. Later on, he observed that the surroundings of the mold were clear from the bacteria of staphylococcus that he was cultivating. After exhaustive testing, Fleming realized that he had discovered a non-toxic antibiotic that was able to kill bacteria infectious for the humans and the animals. 4
  • 6. X-Rays, an other important discovery of the 19th century by the German physicist Wilhelm Conrad R¨ntgenwas, is also a famous example of what is called o “happy accidents”. During his experiment with the cathode he realized that a glow appeared in his dark laboratory, passing through the dark paper and appearing one yard further. After extensive studying on these rays, R¨ntgenwas, realized o that they could penetrate solids or even the skeleton of the human body on a photographic paper. Although his discovery initially was greeted with skepticism, later on proved to be of such importance that managed to win the first Nobel Prize in 1901 and more than that to give to humanity one of the most important medical tools. [12, Ch. 2, p. 87] [11, Ch. VI, p 57] Both Fleming and R¨ntgenwas, with their observations managed to seize the o unexpected factor of chance during the experimental process. By exploiting in the optimal way their observations and with their continuous work on the new evidence, managed to upgrade their research to the state of extraordinary science [10], violate the existing paradigms and do the paradigm shift . 3.2 The Role of Chance in Observations In all the above cases, chance appeared to the scientists in an observable way. In the following case the factor of chance is more subtle and requires a higher level of intuition in order to be able to feel and then conceive it. For Albert Einstein, the intellectual love that a scientist should have for the things and the importance of being able to understand them by feeling them, is expressed in the word ”Einf¨hlung” [14]. This is the case of him, having an inspiration, that was u caused by a coincidence and led him to conceive the theory of relativity. Einstein’s challenge to reconcile the theory of space and time, maybe initially seemed to be utopic. The incident that triggered his thought came when he watched the Bern’s clock while riding a street in his car. This inspiring incident gave him the simple answer he was searching for: ”time can beat at different rates throughout the universe, depending on how fast you move” [20]. For sure, we cannot claim that in the absence of the clock of Bern, Einstein would have never conclude to his theory. On the other hand, we have to acknowledge the coincidence that became the decisive inspiration factor of this theory. During the observation, chance can also have a more profound appearance. For 5
  • 7. example, when Arthur Eddington decided to observe the eclipse of 1919 in order to confirm the Einstein’s theory of gravitation, he experienced the chance in a great extend [12, Ch. 1, p. 4]. Eddington decided to go to the island of Pr´ ıncipe near Africa where he could have one of the best views of the phenomenon. The eclipse would last for 410 seconds, which is an extremely long period of time for such a phenomenon. Although everything seemed to be perfect for Eddington and his observation, when the vital day of the phenomenon arrived several clouds hide the sky from his observation point. The eclipse was hidden from the sky for almost 400 seconds, when all of a sudden, the sky cleared of clouds and Eddington managed to take just one photograph that meant to be the first real proof of Einstein’s theory [19]. 3.3 Unlucky Factors Can Affect the Conclusions In all the above examples, chance had a beneficial role in the process of scientific research. But this is not always the case. In the two following examples of scientific history, we will describe how chance had affected negatively the scientific research an more specifically how it distorted or even prevented the conclusions of the scientific experiments. The first example of such case is of the surgeon John Hunter and his attempt to distinguish the pathogen that causes gonorrhoea from syphilis, which until then was considered to be the same. Hunter lived during the mid of the 18th century, when physicians quite frequently experimented on their selves. Following this trend, Hunter decided to infect himself with gonorrhoea, using a needle. Unfortunately, the needle he used was unknowingly contaminated with syphilis. After he observed that he had both the symptoms of syphilis and gonorrhoea he erroneously claimed that both diseases were of the same pathogen. More than that, some years later, this self-infection caused his death. The conclusions of Hunter, proved to be wrong 51 years later, thanks to the French physician Phillippe Ricord [7, 18]. Last but not least, we will describe the unfortunate story of the French astronomer Guillaume Le Gentil in his trial to measure the distance to the sun. This measurement would be accomplished by observing the transit of Venus at different point on the earth during the year 1761. Among hundreds of observers, Le Gentil, set out for the French colony in India with the name Pondicherry. In the 6
  • 8. meantime, war that burst between France and Britain ended up in the occupation of Pondicerry and thus Le Gentil found it impossible to use it as his observatory. The observation time was only few months away, but Le Gentil was determined to reach the place and observe the phenomenon. After extensive planning, he found the way to the observatory by the time that the phenomenon appeared, but since he was still in the middle of the sea, he was prevented to do any astronomical observation. Le Gentil did not retired from his pursue. He decided to wait an other 8 years in the island, waiting the phenomenon to appear again in the sky. When the morning of the second transit arrived, a cloud slid in front of the Sun and remained there for almost exactly the duration of the phenomenon, making it again impossible for him to take any measurement. The next transit of Venus would happen one century later, which meant that Le Gentil despite his exhaustive endeavour he was prevented forever to observe the phenomenon. As a result, he could never end up to his conclusions restricted by the negative factor of chance that he experienced [4]. Chance favours only the prepared mind2 4 During the process of scientific research, chance can be expressed in many ways. As we already explained in the above cases, chance can take the form of accident, inspiration, coincidence, or even synchronicity. In some cases, chance can be observed and exploited. In other cases, though observable, chance is not yet observed. It is beyond doubt, that for the last case, of unobserved but observable incidents of chance, we cannot have any kind of conclusion. They may have changed the route of scientific history or not. But this is something we will never find out and most probably not even care about. The only thing that we can claim about chance, is that it can happen at any moment and any aspect of the research process. It happens unexpectedly at any point of the scientific procedure without enabling the scientist to forecast or foreseen it. In some cases, chance has proved to be a factor of evolution for the scientific research. Then, the evolution was not thanks to the chance, but most of the 2 Quote of Louis Pasteur from his lecture in University of Lille (7 December 1854). 7
  • 9. times thanks to the intellect of the scientist that was experiencing it. In most of the cases, the scientist that were positively affected by chance, were devoted to their science, questioning all the existing possibilities and working on any possible aspect. In these cases the famous quote of Lous Pasteur is more than true. It expresses in a beautiful linguistic form the moral of all the serendipitous incidents that achieved a paradigm shift. On the other hand, we cannot deny that there are some other cases where the human intellect did not manage to surpass all the difficulties and the preventing factors caused by chance. This of course does not mean that all the obstacles encountered were insurmountable or beyond human nature. It is just a claim that, despite the tremendous endeavour of the individuals and their loyalty to their cause chance did not ”favour their prepared mind”. 5 Conclusion Chance is a factor that entails the sense of elasticity. In some cases, it appears totally rigid, almost preventing any kind of ”free will”. In some other cases it appears to be too elastic, that it is only the level of intellect of each individual that plays the decisive role on whether to exploit it or not. The question that still remains is whether things happen because they have been caused by a reason, or because by happening they serve a reason. If there is still no answer to this, we should unavoidably consider the case that things may also happen in total spontaneity. 8
  • 10. References [1] Les prix nobel, The Nobel Foundation, 1945. [2] Paul Andr´, m.c. schraefel, Jaime Teevan, and Susan T. Dumais, Discovery e is never by chance: designing for (un)serendipity, http://doi.acm.org/10. 1145/1640233.1640279, 2009, pp. 305–314. [3] Aristotle, Physics 2.6. [4] Bryson Bill, A short history of nearly everything, Broadway Books/New York, 2003. [5] John Burnet, Early greek philosophy, MacMillan. [6] Ed.D.1 Fran Slowiczek and Ph.D. Pamela M. Peters, Discovery, chance and the scientific method, http://www.accessexcellence.org/AE/AEC/CC/ chance.php. [7] Charles Anthony Hoffman, Library of the history of medical sciences. [8] David Hume, A treatise of human nature by david hume, ch. Of the probability of chances, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. [9] , A treatise of human nature by david hume, ch. Of Liberty and Necessity, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. [10] Thomas S. Kuhn, Logic of discovery or psychology of research?, 2nd ed., Princeton University, 1970. [11] , The structure of scientific revolutions, 2nd ed., University of Chicago Press, 1970. [12] Jan A. Cover Martin Curd, Philosophy of science: The central issues, W.W. Norton, 1998. [13] C.S Peirce, The law of mind, The Monist II (1892), no. 4, pp.533–559. [14] K. Popper, The logic of scientific discovery, ch. The Problem of Induction, New York: Basik Books, 1959. 9
  • 11. [15] , Open society and its enemies, Princeton University Press, 1971. [16] , Objective knowledge, ch. Of Clouds and Clocks, Clarendon Press, 1972. [17] W. V. Quine, From a logical point of view, ch. Two Dogmas of Empiricism, pp. 20–46, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953. [18] George Qvist, John hunter’s alleged syphilis, 1977. [19] Simon Singh, 1919 eclipse and general relativity, times higher educational supplement, http://simonsingh.net/media/articles/maths-and-science/ 1919-eclipse-and-general-relativity/. [20] Casey Kazan with Josh Hill, Einstein’s eureka! moment: Does unconscious thought underlie creative problem solving?, http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2009/07/ no-doubt-many-of-us-have-all-experienced-a-situation-where-after-long-hours-of html#more, 2009. 10