A Requiem for Science

June 06, 2013

Multiple Pages
A Requiem for Science

As a science geek from way back—Andrade and Huxley were favorite childhood companions—I try to keep tabs on that side of things. This can be disheartening. To quote from that intergalactic bestseller We Are Doomed:

Scientific objectivity is a freakish, unnatural, and unpopular mode of thought, restricted to small cliques whom the generality of citizens regard with dislike and mistrust. Just as religious thinking emerges naturally and effortlessly from the everyday workings of the human brain, so scientific thinking has to struggle against the grain of our mental natures. There is a modest literature on this topic: Lewis Wolpert’s The Unnatural Nature of Science (2000) and Alan Cromer’s Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science (1995) are the books known to me, though I’m sure there are more. There is fiction, too: in Walter M. Miller, Jr.‘s 1960 sci-fi bestseller A Canticle for Leibowitz, the scientists are hunted down and killed…then later declared saints by the Catholic Church.

In a society such as the modern West, where intelligence is declining, where fertility trends are dysgenic, where cognitive elites enforce assent to feel-good ideological claptrap and the mass of citizenry is absorbed in frivolities, science hovers always on the edge of extinction. Saint Leibowitz was martyred following a nuclear Armageddon; on present evidence the Armageddon won’t be necessary. We’ll be barbecuing scientists for the fun of it when reality TV and smartphones begin to pall.

“Science and creative technology have, across the modern period, been the great glories of Western civilization.”

Even science writers seem keen to help at piling up the faggots. John Horgan, for example, who once wrote a book titled The End of Science, is now doing what he can to hasten that end: On the Scientific American blog the other day he called for a ban on research into race differences in IQ. (For a take on this by the irascible but indispensable Greg Cochran, see here.) 

Under these sorry circumstances I feel obliged to do what I can to help keep the guttering flame of dispassionate empirical enquiry alight for at least a while longer. In that spirit I recommend to you a forthcoming book titled The Newton Awards by Michael Hart and Claire Parkinson, now available for preorder from the publisher.

The original idea of the authors was to expand the concept of Nobel Prizes to all areas of science, technology, and math, and to award once prize per year from 1600 to 2000 AD for achievement in those fields. This couldn’t be made to work exactly as planned. For the first 275 years of the period there weren’t enough advances for one prize a year; for 1976-2000 there isn’t yet enough perspective for good judgment. So only for 1876-1975 is there one Newton Award per year; elsewhere the awards are for 5- or 10-year periods.

The authors end up with 140 Newton Awards for the 400-year span, to 172 named awardees. Some awards go to more than one person (e.g., the Wright brothers); some persons get more than one award (e.g., Edison for the phonograph, light bulb, and distributed electricity).

The selections seem to me to be pretty good, though as a gun enthusiast I thought there should have been a mention for small-arms technology—the Minié ball, perhaps, or breech loading. (Military inventions aren’t ignored: Nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles get awards.) 

Political correctness is eschewed completely, which probably accounts for the book being put out by a small publishing house. Every one of the awardees was a white European raised in Europe or one of the British-settler nations (Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand). Just four nations have more than ten awards each: the USA, Britain, Germany, and France.

This agrees with Peter Watson’s apologetic remarks in The Modern Mind (2000) that:

Whatever list you care to make of twentieth-century innovations, be it plastic, antibiotics and the atom or stream-of-consciousness novels, vers libre or abstract expressionism, it is almost entirely Western.

Worse still, practically all the inventing and discovering has been done by men. Only three gals show up in Hart and Parkinson’s lists, and all are joint awardees with a man: Irène Joliot-Curie (with husband Frédéric) for artificial radioactivity, Gertrude Elion (with George Hitchings) for the anti-leukemia drug 6-MP, and Jocelyn Bell (with Antony Hewish) for the discovery of pulsars.

That darn stereotype threat! Don’t be looking for reviews of The Newton Awards in any major outlets. Being literary editor of some niche magazine isn’t as much fun as working for the Heritage Foundation, but it’s just as vulnerable to the Thought Police

Reading through these achievements, a number of things come to mind. For example: What part is played by luck in these greatest discoveries and inventions? Practically none, is the overall impression. Some breakthroughs were achieved when the scientist was looking for something else or for nothing in particular; but the confirmation, elaboration, and explanation of what had been found was still creative intellectual work of the first order.

The discovery of cosmic background radiation by Penzias and Wilson in 1965, for example, was certainly fortuitous: They weren’t looking for it, only trying to calibrate an antenna. Their diligence in isolating the unexpected phenomenon, though, and their collegiality in bringing in astrophysicists to provide theory, got them a well-deserved Nobel Prize.

Similarly with Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who discovered microorganisms in 1674. The authors:

As Leeuwenhoek had not been deliberately searching for microorganisms, some books suggest that he was merely lucky. Our view is quite different. His discovery was a result of his carefully constructing scientific instruments of unparalleled quality, and then spending a great deal of time making observations with them. The combination of skill and hard work is the very opposite of luck.

Science and creative technology have, across the modern period, been the great glories of Western civilization. As that civilization yields up its lands to non-European peoples and ideologies of magic and unreason, pause to take a backward glance at the astonishing things we once accomplished: Order a copy of The Newton Awards.

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