The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher

By Martin Gardner | Go to book overview

17 Thoughts on Superstrings

Goaded by the realization that science is fallible and by the efforts of pragmatists to eliminate "truth" from the vocabularies of science and philosophy, a line of study emerged early this century called the "sociology of knowledge." Its practitioners fall on a rough spectrum. At one end are the sociologists and historians who recognize that science makes steady progress toward understanding how nature works, but who like to stress how that progress is shaped by social influences. At the other extreme are those so smitten by the uncertainty of science that they are almost incapable of making value judgments about the relative merits of competing theories.

Voices from the latter group are perpetually raised about the baleful influence of the "establishment," the keepers of scientific orthodoxy, in opposing offbeat theories that challenge prevailing opinions. It is this group that keeps reminding us, over and over again, about how Aristotelian astronomers fought Galileo's cosmology, how orthodox doctors scorned the germ theory of Ignaz Semmelweis, how conservative geologists ridiculed continental drift, and how stubborn astronomers refused to believe stones could fall from the sky.

One important aspect of the history of science that these extreme sociologists of knowledge tend to overlook is the accelerating speed with which the scientific enterprise is growing and improving its methods and investigative tools. In Galileo's day the number of experiments taking place around the world was minuscule, and the telescope was literally a child's toy. At the time of Semmelweis, medicine was at a stage comparable to astrological astronomy. When Alfred Wegener argued for continental drift, his theory had almost no supporting evidence. Astronomers who did not believe in meteorites knew little about the solar system.

This century's increase in scientific knowledge and techniques has been staggering. Tens of thousands of researchers around the world now make tens of thousands of observations and experiments every year, and report them in hundreds of periodicals. Communication of significant new discoveries is rapid. There are two recent examples: the discovery of the nearest supernova in 383 years, and the creation of materials that superconduct electricity at

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