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

Dr. Sarukkai comments on another aspect of what scientists do-

“Arguably the most important marker of science is this capacity to build institutions at all levels of the society. Science is primarily an activity of establishing community, solidarity and building institutions. These institutions range from departments in universities, Chairs in different disciplines, creation of new research institutes, establishing science and engineering academies with rules for electing members, various tiers of awards given to encourage science which starts from scholarships, prizes for best thesis, young scientist award, awards for persons in various age groups, lifetime awards and so on.”

(Page 32)

“All these point to one essential aspect of science – its inherent relation to various forms of institutionalization. Through these innumerable social institutions, science derives social legitimacy.”

(Page 33)

Dr. Sarukkai talks of some more aspects in which what scientists do resembles what non-scientists do-

“For good or bad, scientists are as human as non-scientists.”

“They believe in a wide variety of beliefs which have nothing to do with science and which are sometimes contrary to science. Many scientists are religious and believe in God. Many scientists go to astrologers. They have their own types of superstition. They participate in many social practices which could be called as irrational by some. Many of them also support regressive social structures. In their personal lives, they are often emotional and intemperate when it comes to personal conflicts and problems. They are, like other professionals, able to distinguish between what they do as a career and what they do as an individual. They often recognize that being scientific (if this means being logical or rational) is often applicable only to specific scientific problems they are dealing with and not to personal interactions or social structures.”

(Page 33)

Dr. Sarukkai now focuses on what scientists do in particular, when they are doing science. He begins with how scientists do theoretical research-

” First of all, when students learn theories of science such as the theory of gravitation, theory of chemical reactions or theory of evolution, they learn them as a complete and coherent set of arguments. What they learn is the final product and therefore they often do not get a glimpse of the process that leads to theory formation. Theories take years to build; some theories get refined over centuries! In the day-to-day activity of theorizing, very rarely do scientists construct full theories. What they most often do is to build a theory step by small step. What we see as the final theory is most often built on many small theories. There are also many theoretical attempts that are discarded along the way.”

” The first principle in doing every-day theory is to deal with small problems, not big ones. What this means is that a physicist, for example, will not start by trying to solve the problem of gravity or a biologist the problem of life. Instead, she might begin with a small problem, which could be in the formulation of a problem, trying out new assumptions, using a different model or finding new parameters for calculation. To draw upon an analogy from history, one could call these small efforts the ‘subaltern theories’, theories which are below the surface and are often ignored in the large theory. In their everyday activity, theorists most often are involved with such subaltern theories.”

(Page 34)

” There is often a creative and intuitive element in choosing a theoretical problem. But it is also equally true that the problems which are deemed to be worthy of solving are suggested by others. When a student is working for a doctorate degree, the guide most often suggests the problem and the student then attempts to find ways to solve it. For the majority of scientists, the scientific community articulates the problems that are then collectively taken up. So what is seen as an interesting problem is often what the community of scientists in that area see as an interesting problem and a problem worth solving. Very rarely do scientists engage in completely new problems or create new perspectives which others haven’t done before them. Where scientists succeed in propounding new ideas, they become the leaders of a field. But such moments in theories are few are far between and are not part of everyday work of scientists.”

(Page 35)

He then points out the nature of descriptions in scientific theories-

” Galileo understood well that a phenomenon could be described in various ways. But for a description to be scientific, he argued that only measurable concepts should be used. For example, one can describe a falling stone in many different ways. We could talk about the sound it makes as it moves through the air, the feeling of hardness of the stone or perhaps the changing colours of the stone as it falls. For Galileo, such descriptions are not scientific since they are not based on concepts which are quantifiable and measurable. So in the case of the falling stone, he used height and time as two measurable concepts. He described the falling stone by noting the height through which it fell and the time it took to fall. Both these are quantifiable. From these observations he found the relation between height fallen and the time taken.”

(Page 36)

” The interesting thing about this is that you not need anything more than these measurable concepts. Physics of motion does not need the concept of colour or taste or smell. Philosophers considered these properties as secondary properties – properties of the human who perceives the object and not the properties of the object or event per se. In removing secondary qualities from physics, Galileo was removing the role of the human in the sciences. This suspicion towards these qualities are so ingrained in science that even a discipline like chemistry, which is a discipline filled with colour and smell, ignores these secondary qualities in its scientific descriptions! In the science of chemicals, these qualities are never part of any significant theory (although this is a view that has been challenged in recent times).”

(Page 37)
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