Angels, devil and science



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The third step in the method of science is the experiment. The experiment must have one of the following two objectives: either to find an answer to a question, or to prove or disprove a hypothesis. An experiment which does not attempt to meet one of these two objectives is unlikely to be a good experiment. To do an experiment, one must make an inventory of all the steps in the experiment, collect all the material one needs, and carry out all the steps with the utmost possible care. More important, one must record all the observations, paying attention to the smallest detail.

And most important, one must record everything—expected or unexpected—whether one wished it to be so or not. It is in the doing of an experiment in this manner that the values of objectivity, lack of bias and the exercise of care in what one does, come into existence in science. An unexpected observation could lead to an important discovery. We may recall that penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in this way—because of an entirely unexpected observation he made while trying to test quite a different hypothesis.

The last step in the method of science is the answer. The answer generally takes one of two possible forms. It could either be a scientific fact of limited applicability, or a generalization of wide applicability. Let us consider an example; the case of the two diseases, albinism and haemophilia.

Albinism is the lack of the pigment (called melanin) which gives the skin its natural colour; albinos have an unusual appearance and can be easily spotted: their skin is pinkish white, their hair has the colour of straw, and their eyes are sensitive to intense light and need to be protected. Haemophiliacs do not posses the ability to allow the blood to clot, so that a haemophilic would bleed to death because of a small wound which many of us would not even notice. The question is how are these diseases caused?

It has been observed that these two diseases are found in a cluster in families. It is also known that synthesis of melanin and clotting of blood are biochemical processes controlled by biological catalysts called enzymes. A reasonable hypothesis, therefore, would be that albinism and haemophilia are hereditary diseases caused on account of malfunction of an enzyme. One could do two types of experiments to verify the hypothesis. First, one could look for other albinos or haemophiliacs in the family of an albino or a haemophilic and determine the familial pattern, if any, in regard to the occurrence of the diseases, for, if the diseases are inherited, they must follow the laws of heredity- The second experiment would be to determine, by biochemical analysis, why the albinos cannot make the skin pigment, or why the blood of a haemophilic cannot coagulate, and then see if this biochemical deficiency is present in all haemophiliacs and albinos. Both these investigations were done. It was found that these diseases are inherited according to the laws of heredity propounded by Mendel more than a hundred years ago, and now well understood. It was also shown that the disease was due to the lack of a particular enzyme in each case. Therefore, beginning with an observation, through the construction of a testable hypothesis, and by doing experiments, we came to the conclusion that an inheritable enzyme deficiency can cause a disease: in fact, one of the most important conclusions ever arrived at in biology.
The Uses of the Method of Science

The method of science can be used for various purposes. Let us consider three such uses.

(a) To find an answer to a specific question, the like of which has been answered many times before. Here one asks the question, does the experiment, and arrives at the answer, without framing a hypothesis. One uses past experience and existing knowledge to design the experiment and to interpret the results of the experiment. For example, the question may be; find the density of a 50 paise coin. Indeed, scientists have found densities of objects many, many times before and the procedure for doing so is well-known. One may, therefore, skip the hypothesis step and go on to determine the weight and the volume of the coin (the experiment). The density would be weight divided by volume (the answer).

(b) To find an answer to a question of which the answer is wholly or partially unknown. In such cases, one begins with an observation or an analysis of existing knowledge (the framing of the question). A hypothesis is then formulated and experiments designed to test the hypothesis; the results of the experiments are recorded. If the results support the hypothesis, the hypothesis could be the answer. If so, more experiments are done to test the validity of the hypothesis. If the results of any of the experiments do not support the hypothesis, the hypothesis is modified and another set of experiments designed to test the new hypothesis. Once all the experiments that could be done to test the hypothesis have been done, and all of them have supported the hypothesis, one could say that the hypothesis is correct. The hypothesis, then, becomes the answer to the question initially asked- This is the sequence followed in scientific research.

(c) To find an answer to a question under conditions where an experiment is not possible. This is, perhaps, the most exciting application of the method of science. As an example, let us take the question: what should you do to help your brother who is suffering from typhoid, to get well as soon as possible? One may indeed construct many hypotheses as possible answers to this question. Should you go to a place of worship and pray? Should you let nature take its own course and hope for the best? Should you give him an extract prepared from spices or herbs recommended by your grandmother or a friend? Or should you seek the advice of a doctor trained in modern medicine? You obviously cannot test all the alternatives by experiments. Indeed, if you followed the method of science, you would determine which of these answers will be most compatible with existing knowledge. If such an exercise is done carefully, you would probably come to the conclusion that it is the last suggestion that is seeking the advice of a competent doctor trained in modern medicine that is in agreement with existing knowledge and is likely to serve best the objective of curing your sick brother as quickly as possible. (Modern medicine provides a sure remedy for typhoid.) The method of science can be applied in this manner for answering questions concerning a vast spectrum of human activity, from decision-making in daily life to ethics, politics, economics and social behaviour.
An Example of the Application of the Method of Science

Let us ask the question: what is the path followed by light. The simplest hypothesis would be that light travels in a straight line. To test it by an experiment, one should collect a point source of light (A), two cardboard sheets with pinholes (B and C), three stands suitable for the light-source and sheets, and a scale. If light were to travel in a straight line, and the light source A and the cardboards with pinholes B and C were kept in the order A,B,C, the light source should be visible through the hole C when A, B and C are in a straight line. Further, the light source A should not be visible through the hole C when the source and the holes (B and C) are not in a straight line. These are precisely the observations you would make if you were to do the two experiments. In other words, the results of the experiments support your hypothesis. The answer to your question, then, is that light travels in a straight line.

One can arrive at the same conclusion through many other experiments. Today, one can actually see light travelling in a straight line; think of the laser beam!

At times, of course, light may appear to travel in curved lines as in the case of fibre optics but, in fact, closer analysis would reveal that this is no exception to the law that light travels in a straight line. In fibre optics, light from the source undergoes a series of total internal reflections within the tube and, in this process, gives the appearance of deviating from the straight path. We are indeed glad that, in this case, appearances are deceptive, or else we would not be able to use fibre optics behind opaque barriers, as we now often do in surgery. You would, however, find that the above law— that light travels in a straight line—would break down if:

• a uniform medium was not used for the light to pass, for example, if cardboard B was placed in between two glass sheets; or

• we could measure and align distance with an accuracy of 0.00001 cm!

We may, therefore, also conclude that, when stating a law, it is important to define carefully the conditions under which the law may be expected to hold true.
Some Landmarks in the History of the Method of Science and its Applications

The development of the method of science begins with Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century. He was the first to recognise the importance of experiments and of direct observation, thereby laying the foundation of the method of science. We, then, have Leonardo da Vinci, Nicolaus Copernicus, Francis Bacon and Galileo Galilee in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, whose contributions to the method of science were monumental. With da Vinci began the ‘new age’ (the Renaissance) in Europe; it was the first time that science played a major role in social transformation. Copernicus’ was the first major scientific discovery (that the earth revolves round the sun) that eventually toppled a widely-held non-scientific belief (that the sun revolves round the earth). Francis Bacon made the first formal statement of the method of science as we know it today: the making of experiments, the drawing of general conclusions from them, and the testing of these general conclusions and generalizations through further experiments. And, with Galileo of Galilee began the breach between science and religion; his was the first major case of victimization of an outstanding scientist by religious leaders because of the views he held. (Galileo supported Copernicus, became a victim of the Inquisition for this ‘heresy’ and died under house arrest.)

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) introduced the rigid concepts of mathematics and logic, and of the method of doubt and questioning, into the method of science. Isaac Newton (1642-1727) first made use of the application of experimental method—the method of science—for arriving at a set of interrelated generalizations. The Royal Society in Britain and the French Royal Academy of Sciences, founded during 1662-1666, were the first organizations to support the idea of doing experiments. The Industrial Revolution that began around 1760 with the first large-scale establishment of factories was the first application of the method of science to organized and efficient large-scale production.

Friedrich Wohler (1800-1882) demonstrated, by using the method of science, that substances made by living systems are not anything special; they can be made in the laboratory from non-living materials. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) applied the method of science to synthesise a large body of descriptive information. He enunciated the theory of evolution and the idea that man has evolved gradually from lower forms of life. Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), using the scientific method, demonstrated that life can be generated only from life, thereby laying a foundation of modern biology. Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) applied the method of science to an integrated analysis of social, political and economic problems, an analysis that led to the formulation of the first, science-based socio-politico-economic theory. Frederick Growland Hopkins (1861-1947) discovered vitamins and laid the foundation of the science of nutrition which tells us what to eat and how much of it to eat; not only he but nearly ten of his collaborators and colleagues subsequently won Nobel Prizes! Vladmir Ilyich Lenin (l870-1924) stated the concept of planning, using the method of science, for development and for the achievement of social objectives.

With Albert Einstein (1879-1955) began the age of ‘grand generalizations’ in physics. J. D. Bemal (1901-1972) gave new dimensions to the method of science when he put forward his enunciation of the intimate relationship between science and society. Later on, with P.M.S. Blackett (1897-1973), he found that the method of science could aid successful conduct of major operations in war. Thus operational research, destined to play a vital role in war and in peace, came into being. Enrico Fermi ushered in the nuclear age by carrying out the first controlled nuclear chain reaction in 1942, on the tennis courts of University of Chicago. In the next decade, James Watson and Francis Crick brought about the modern biological revolution by determining the structure of the genetic material (DNA). And finally, the landing of the first man on the moon and his return to the earth in 1969—the twenty-first event in my listing here—demonstrated in a spectacular fashion the fact that science allows one to make testable predictions.

These landmarks show that the scope of the method of science has continuously increased even though the basic steps have remained unchanged.


How does Science Progress?

In science, at a given time, we accept a theory or a law when:

(1) all the observations made and experiments done until that time support the fact or theory;

(2) the new theory satisfactorily explains all that was explained;

(3) no new experiments can be conceived at that time, the results of which may not support the theory; and

(4) all predictions made on the basis of the theory upto that time have turned out to be right.


Then, and then alone, is a theory in science accepted. An existing fact or theory gives way to a new fact or theory when the following criteria are met:

(1) New experimental evidence is obtained which is not in conformity with the existing fact or theory.

(2) The new theory satisfactorily explains all that was explained by the earlier theory and some additional observations not explained by the earlier theory.

(3) Predictions can be made on the basis of the new fact or theory which could not have been made on the basis of the earlier fact or theory.

(4) Some of these predictions have been tested and every tested prediction has turned out to be right.
Let us look at two examples.

Example 1. In the 17th century, Isaac Newton formulated his famous laws of motion and gravitation, which explained the motion of objects on our Earth and, to a more limited extent, elsewhere in the universe. He also showed that white light can be broken into lights of different colours which can be recombined to give back white light. Three centuries later—in the first half of this century—Albert Einstein formulated his famous theory of relativity which explains all that was explained by Newton’s laws, plus the following phenomena /observations that cannot be explained by Newton’s laws:

• The mass of an object depends on its speed.

• Mass and energy are inter-convertible.

• The speed of light is independent of the motion of the light source and of the observer.

• Light bends in the presence of a large gravitational force such as that of the sun.

• ‘Black holes’ exist in space into which light may enter but from which it will not come out.

• The ‘wavelength’ of light increases as a result of its passage closes to a massive object, such as a star. (Red light at one end of the visible spectrum, into which white light can be broken, has the longest wavelength, while violet light at the other end of the spectrum has the shortest wavelength.)

For these reasons, Einsteinian physics replaced Newtonian physics, even though the former evolved from the latter.



Example 2. In the 19th century, John Dalton, a British scientist, formulated his famous atomic theory, according to which:

• All elements consist of ‘atoms’ which are indivisible.

• All the atoms of an element are identical to each other in size and weight but different from the atoms of all other elements in these respects.

• Atoms of elements combine in simple ratios to form compounds.

Current concepts of structure of matter (incorporated in the modern atomic theory) explain all that was explained by Dalton’s atomic theory plus the following phenomena/ observations which cannot be explained by Dalton’s atomic theory:

• The intensity of forces which hold atoms together varies in a molecule.

• The properties of substances depend on their state: solid, liquid or gaseous.

• Changes occur in the properties of solvents when certain substances are dissolved in it. For example, water—a non­conductor of electricity—becomes a conductor when a salt is dissolved in it.

• Many substances are electrically charged—that is, they move towards the positive or the negative pole in an electrical field.

• Different elements may exist in forms which have the same atomic weight.

• Elements, when arranged in the order of increasing atomic weights (as in Mendeleev’s periodic table), show a periodicity in their properties—for example, in their relative ability to combine with other elements.

• Certain elements are radioactive, but not others.

The modern atomic theory, therefore, had valid reasons to replace Dalton’s atomic theory.
The Right to Question

One of the most important attributes of science is the right to question. Knowledge advances and science progresses because people exercise their right to question. However, to question existing knowledge (a fact, theory or law) without any rational basis or reason is as unscientific as never to question at all. The reason for the questioning may be a flaw found in an earlier experiment; a known observation which was earlier ignored and which can be shown to be incompatible with the earlier fact, theory or law; an alternative explanation found for the evidence on which the earlier fact, theory or law was based; or new evidence which is incompatible with the fact, theory or law. Therefore, science puts a constraint on the freedom to question while making the right to question a “fundamental” right. Let us look at two examples, one mediaeval and the other, modern.

Five hundred years ago, it was universally believed that earth was the center of the universe and the sun and the planets revolved around it. Copernicus (1473-1543) questioned this belief. His questioning satisfied the criteria stated above. He used the method of science and his creative ability to show that his doubt was justified and that the age-old belief was wrong.

It has been and still is (as the school textbooks will show) a common belief that there is one and only one point on the surface of the earth from where if you travel one mile south, then one mile east {or west) and, finally, one mile north, you would reach where you started from. This point is obviously the North Pole. A few decades ago, someone questioned this belief, and came out with the interesting finding that there are an infinite number of points lying on a series of loci from where one could do exactly the same thing: that is, go one mile south, one mile east, and one mile north and come back to where he started! (If you cannot work this out yourself, write to the authors for the answer.) This is a remarkable example of how science progresses because people exercise their right to question.


Science has no High Priests who cannot be questioned

Another attribute of science is that it has no true high priests. No scientist can insist that whatever he says must be accepted without questioning, that is, entirely on the basis of faith in him. In fact, there has probably never been a scientist, including the most eminent ones, who has not been questioned and shown to be wrong sometime or the other. Science, therefore, does not accept the existence of godmen, that is, men who believe they have special powers that cannot be understood by other men, and whose statements and actions must, therefore, be accepted by others without questioning. Science is, therefore, democratic, non-exploitative and non-dogmatic.


Science Often Progresses by Disproving

In fact, discovery in science often disproves an earlier scientific belief, that is, a part or whole of an existing scientific fact, theory or law. For example, at least two Nobel Prizes were awarded for discoveries which were later partially disproved:

(a) In 1927, Heinrich Wieland received the Nobel Prize for chemistry for discovering the structure of cholic acid, the parent substance from which are derived a large number of important chemical compounds, such as cholesterol (an excess of which in the body is correlated with heart disease). A part of this structure was proved to be wrong soon afterwards.

(b) In 1959, two American biochemists, S. Ochoa and A. Kornberg, received the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine for the discovery of enzymes (biological catalysts) which carry out the synthesis of nucleic acids— the chemical substances responsible for heredity. Later, it turned out that neither of*the two enzymes discovered by Ochoa and Kornberg was responsible for the synthesis of nucleic acids in living systems.


Let us look at a few other examples.

Einstein’s theory of relativity enunciated in 1905 disproved several beliefs held by scientists. For example, until then, the following statements were generally held true by all scientists: (i) the mass of an object does not depend on the speed at which the object is travelling; (ii) mass and energy are not inter-convertible; and (iii) speed of light in free space depends on the motion of the light source and the observer. Today, we know that these statements are incorrect.

Proteins are constituents of our diet which are essential for us to survive, grow and be healthy. It is, therefore, important to know how much protein we need to consume everyday. Estimates of the daily protein requirements of an average, normal adult male have, however, changed drastically over the years:
Year Estimated Daily Protein Requirements

1881 145 grams

1936 65 grams

1965 46 grams

1973 37 grams
Obviously, not all the above values could be correct!

Till recently, it was widely believed that the major nutritional problem in the developing countries such as India, was the problem of protein deficiency—that is, people did not eat enough protein. Recent work has disproved this theory and shown that the major problem is a deficiency of protein as well as the other, major energy-producing constituents of our diet; in other words, there is just not enough food for the people!

Estimates in the past of such a simple parameter as the density of air have differed very significantly from the value accepted today:
Year Experimenter Density (specific gravity) of Air

1600 Galileo 0.0025

1642 Descartes 0.0067

Mersenne 0.0007

1659 --------- 0.0011

Today --------- 0.0013


It is important to recognise that in every case cited here (and in all other similar cases), the earlier fact or theory was disproved only in the sense that it was modified—that is, altered partially and not replaced entirely—by the new discovery. The new discovery would probably have not been made—at least at the time it was made—if the earlier fact or theory had not existed before. In every case, the earlier fact or theory provided the starting point for the new discovery.
Science is not Dogmatic or Unreasonably Insistent

Science is not orthodox or conservative. Scientific truths are arrived at by an agreement of opinion—that is, by a consensus—based on the method of science. The agreement has to be reached among people who are knowledgeable in the area concerned and who form their opinion by using the method of science. The agreed opinion must be arrived at after such individuals have either verified the result personally, or satisfied themselves adequately about the validity of the experiments and of the logic which led to the particular truth. The greater the above agreement and the greater the evidence in favour of a scientific truth (fact, theory or law), the more rigid must be the proof of evidence which will allow any modification of the truth to be accepted by the scientists, and the lesser will be the chance that the new evidence against the truth will stand a close scrutiny by them.



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