the_science_culture - 7 T he Science Culture T k e J cie~ce...

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7 The Science Culture Tke Jcie~ce Culture n the movies, scientists are almost always mad, bad or quaint nerds who rattle on about controlling the world, shrinking the kids or inventing gadgets in the James Bond tradition. The caricatures may just be purely fun, or the result of discomfort or lack of understanding. Or perhaps they exist because scientific knowledge is so highly specialised, and its application has changed the world so profoundly, that ~eople see science and scientists as hard, cold and less than human. The basic methodology of modern science is com- paratively new in terms of the way human beings have tra- ditionally approached the world. We are used to trial and error and the common sense approach, but science works by a much more formal process that leads often to counter- intuitive conclusions. The level of insight associated with award-winning science may not be vastly different from that found in great writing, but good books are much more familiar than what we now know as science. We all understand the social function of prize-winning literature. Stories and story telling are central to the human condition. We can look to, and learn from, the paintings and oral tradition of cultures like those of the Indigenous people who were isolated on the Australian continent for more than 40,000 years. Though the Greek historians bre tru or ucydides and Herodotus have been dead for around 00 years, the translations of their works can be read with niration, not only for the information but also for adth of knowledge and insight they convey. The same is e for the philosophical writings of Plato, Homer's epics the plays of Euripides. The tradition is old and strong. e mirrors our contemporary poets, playwrights and ilosopher novelists hold up to us may not differ greatly in dity or clarity from previous ones, but they reflect our -rent reality and are immensely important to us. The march of science from early times is much less recorded. The very beginnings, from the discovery of the wheel, are lost in time. We can only speculate: were the builders of Stonehenge more than 4,000 years ago acting on carefully worked out mathematical and astronomical principles? How did they think and operate? Did those who constructed the Egyptian pyramids or the ancient cities of the Mediterranean use well-understood basic theory, or precedent and wisdom based on trial and error? The shamans, priests and witch doctors who claimed to intercede with the gods to produce rain or good crops are likely to have had a pretty random rate of success. Even if they were able to maintain a position of power through fear, ritual sacrifices and the accrual of wealth, they were also likely to be killed if chance caught up with them and they had a few bad years, and reading the entrails of dead chickens has pretty much gone out as a usefd technique for weather forecasting or medical diagnosis. Contemporary scientists are neither priests nor witch doctors. The science that we live with today is, in fact, only about 500 years old.
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This note was uploaded on 02/14/2010 for the course PHY 303K taught by Professor Turner during the Spring '08 term at University of Texas.

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the_science_culture - 7 T he Science Culture T k e J cie~ce...

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