professor of interdisciplinary studies at the Institute for Advanced Study
Science, like most human activities, is based upon a belief - namely, the assumption that nature is understandable
I should teach the world that science, like most human activities, is based upon a belief - namely, the assumption that nature is understandable. This is an extremely radical belief. When you look around and see leaves twirling in the wind, clouds billowing and plants and animals of all types jostling with each other, there is nothing to suggest that all of this can be understood in more than a vague and general way.
The key to success was simplicity and modesty. Science, as we now know it, was born in the seventeenth century, when scientists started to focus upon very simple experiments and observations. Galileo Galilei timed the motion of balls, that he rolled down inclined planes. Johannes Kepler analysed the orbit of Mars, in great detail. Isaac Newton put these various results together. The belief that such an approach would actually lead to a deep understanding of all phenomena, was an extreme leap of faith.
The idea that nature is understandable will always remain a belief. How could you possibly test it? Every day, scientists encounter results in their laboratories that - at first sight - do not seem to fit. Most such problems go away, upon more careful analysis. If a problem remains, then we may try to extend our theories, or we may replace them with more accurate ones. But scientists never just shrug their shoulders, and say: 'Oh, yes, that phenomenon. No, I cannot explain it. I guess that one is just unexplainable in principle.'
This belief - that nature is understandable, and that it can yield to a systematic analysis by generations of researchers, who pool their insights and results - is the most radical belief that has been entertained by humanity. We cannot prove it to be correct, but it has proven itself to be extremely fruitful, in giving us a degree of insight into nature that would have been undreamt of a mere 500 years ago.
Piet Hut is coauthor of The Gravitational Million-Body Problem: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Star Cluster Dynamics (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website.