By Carlo Rovelli
The separation of science and the humanities is relatively new—and detrimental to both.
We teach our students: We say that we have some theories about science. Science is about hypothetico-deductive methods; we have observations, we have data, data require organizing into theories. So then we have theories. These theories are suggested or produced from the data somehow, then checked in terms of the data. Then time passes, we have more data, theories evolve, we throw away a theory, and we find another theory that’s better, a better understanding of the data, and so on and so forth.
This is the standard idea of how science works, which implies that science is about empirical content; the true, interesting, relevant content of science is its empirical content. Since theories change, the empirical content is the solid part of what science is.
Now, there’s something disturbing, for me, as a theoretical scientist, in all this. I feel that something is missing. Something of the story is missing. I’ve been asking myself, “What is this thing missing?” I’m not sure I have the answer, but I want to present some ideas on something else that science is.
This is particularly relevant today in science, and particularly in physics, because—if I’m allowed to be polemical—in my field, fundamental theoretical physics, for thirty years we have failed. There hasn’t been a major success in theoretical physics in the last few decades after the standard model, somehow. Of course there are ideas. These ideas might turn out to be right. Loop quantum gravity might turn out to be right, or not. String theory might turn out to be right, or not. But we don’t know, and for the moment Nature has not said yes, in any sense.
I suspect that this might be in part because of the wrong ideas we have about science, and because methodologically we’re doing something wrong—at least in theoretical physics, and perhaps also in other sciences. Let me tell you a story to explain what I mean. The story is an old story about my
latest, greatest passion outside theoretical physics—an ancient scientist, or so I say even if often he’s called a philosopher: Anaximander. I’m fascinated by this character, Anaximander. I went into understanding what he did, and to me he’s a scientist. He did something that’s very typical of science and shows some aspect of what science is. What is the story with Anaximander? It’s the following, in brief:
Until Anaximander, all the civilizations of the planet— everybody around the world—thought the structure of the world was the sky over our heads and the earth under our feet. There’s an up and a down, heavy things fall from the up to the down, and that’s reality. Reality is oriented up and down; Heaven’s up and Earth is down. Then comes Anaximander and says, “No, it’s something else. The Earth is a finite body that floats in space, without falling, and the sky is not just over our head, it’s all around.”
How did he get this? Well, obviously, he looked at the sky. You see things going around—the stars, the heavens, the moon, the planets, everything moves around and keeps turning around us. It’s sort of reasonable to think that below us is nothing, so it seems simple to come to this conclusion. Except that nobody else came to this conclusion. In centuries and centuries of ancient civilizations, nobody got there. The Chinese didn’t get there until the 17th century, when Matteo Ricci and the Jesuits went to China and told them. In spite of centuries of the Imperial Astronomical Institute, which was studying the sky. The Indians learned this only when the Greeks arrived to tell them. In Africa, in America, in Australia—nobody else arrived at this simple realization that the sky is not just over our head, it’s also under our feet. Why?
Because obviously it’s easy to suggest that the Earth floats in nothing, but then you have to answer the question, Why doesn’t it fall? The genius of Anaximander was to answer this question…
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