Part of a Series of Excerpts from Prof. Sundar Sarukkai’s Book, ‘What is Science?’

“One of the most enduring images of science is its special relationship with logic and rationality. In fact, the logic associated with science is often seen to rub off on the scientists so much so that scientists are thought to be logical in all their thoughts and actions. We can see this pervasive relation between science and logic both within the community of science as well as in the public narratives of science. Historically too, science presented itself as a logical enterprise in contrast to religion which was supposedly infused with blind beliefs and superstition. Other activities such as art and literature too have been associated with the illogical and are often contrasted to the logicality of science.”

” The attraction of science, especially for children and young students, is very much catalyzed by the stories of discovery in science. Science texts are filled with anecdotes about how scientists discover new stars and galaxies, fundamental particles, new chemicals, viruses and so on. Even in the public domain, science is most powerfully communicated through hundreds of exciting stories about scientific discoveries.”

” Not so surprisingly, many of these stories in the public about the romance of creating new things in science often do not tell the full story of the discoveries and inventions. This is because the complete story of these discoveries and inventions are not only complex but they – in many cases – do not illustrate the strict logicality associated with science.”

(Page 52)

” Kekule’s discovery of the structure of benzene molecule is well-known: he dreamt of atoms which were ‘twining and twisting in snake-like motion’ (in his words) and suddenly he saw that ‘one of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes.’ Kekule’s discovery of such molecular structures revolutionised chemistry. Kekule’s discovery was not a product of logically trying to discover what the structure of benzene could be. In the case of Kekule, the discovery was primarily a product of two instances of dreaming. A similar case of discovery through an act of dreaming happened in the case of Loewi whose work on the chemical transmission of the nerve impulse got him a Nobel Prize.”

“Similarly, X-rays were discovered by Rontgen entirely by accident when he was troubled by a source of faint light in his darkened laboratory. Becquerel discovered radioactivity by another accident of placing a crystal of uranium salt on top of a photographic plate along with a copper cross and putting all of them in a drawer. He was waiting for sunny weather but many cloudy days passed by. ‘Tired of waiting’ (in his words), he took out the plates – and thus accidentally discovered radioactivity when he found that the plate showed an image of the cross even though it was kept in darkness.”

“Different families of sweeteners were actually discovered through accidents: in one case, the researcher had spilled some chemical on his hand and when he had dinner he could detect a ‘curious sweet taste’ – this was the discovery of saccharine; another family of cyclamate sweeteners were discovered when a research student kept his cigarette on a bench and when he smoked it after picking it up he detected sweetness; sucralose was detected because one research student misheard his professor who asked the student to ‘test’ a chemical but the student misheard it as ‘taste’ it! ”

“The synthetic discovery of indigo occurred when a worker was stirring a chemical with a thermometer and the thermometer accidentally broke. The mercury in the thermometer mixed with the chemical and a new compound was formed, thus leading to the development of indigo. Many such discoveries were often catalyzed unsuspectingly by a variety of causes including careless cleaning of laboratory equipments. Fermi himself writes in a letter to Chandrasekhar about how against all reason he decided to use paraffin instead of lead and this led to the discovery of the effect of slow neutrons which catalysed the development of nuclear physics. ”

(Page 53)

“There are many such cases in biology ranging from discovery of enzyme action to chemical reactions in the nervous system. A well-known example is the discovery related to the beating of a heart in a solution. The lab assistant did not bother to place the heart in a distilled water solution and instead used tap water which led to sustained beating of the heart. On finding the composition of the tap water, the influence of calcium ions was discovered. Similarly, an important step in hormone research was accidently made possible because a janitor left the lights on during the nights in the laboratory where hypophysectomised birds were kept. Another intriguing discovery is the discovery of vitamin thiamine which was accidentally catalysed because a cook did not want to feed boiled rice to the chickens and instead fed them polished rice.”

” How do we understand this character of scientific discoveries along with the claim that science is logical? If we claim that scientific ideas arise through a well-established logical method then we cannot explain many of the creative jumps which lead to new knowledge. One way to respond to this is to say that new discoveries are matters of creativity and scientific creativity is as ephemeral as artistic creativity. Reichenbach, a philosopher of science, suggested that in the case of science there are two different contexts: a context of discovery and a context of justification. While the context of discovery may often be inspired by such seemingly random, creative processes the context of justification (the way in which these discoveries are justified to the larger scientific community) involves method and logic. Creativity in general is often accidental or at least not predictable and not trainable. But we should also recognize that although these discoveries are serendipititious they nevertheless involve some scientific competence in the discoverer.”

(Page 54)
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