- Paperback: 160 pages
- Publisher: Faber and Faber; Main edition (July 20, 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0571241891
- ISBN-13: 978-0571241897
- Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.4 x 7.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 9 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,423,904 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Common Sense of Science Paperback – July 20, 2011
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About the Author
Jacob Bronowski was born in Poland in 1908. At the age of 12 he came to England, and within six years was a brilliant mathematics student at Cambridge. During the war he helped to forecast the economic effects of bombing Germany. After many years working for the National Coal Board, he moved to the Salk Institute in 1964 while developing his career as a broadcaster. In 1973, he presented for the BBC the ambitious 13-part series The Ascent of Man, which made him a household name. He died the following year.
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In chapter V, Bronowski talks about machines and models. He says that science demands that what it studies be a machine. The closest he comes to defining machine is that "A machine in science is a concept with definite properties which can be isolated, can be reproduced in space and in time, and whose behaviour can be predicted." He seems to be asserting that the world really is mechanical, although it's not clear to me if he means that the world would be mechanical without people to think about it or if we people come up with a mechanical order for the world; in the latter case, I don't see how this is different from models. He says that we make models that tell us how this machinery works: "The model sets up behind the machine a hypothetical world which yields the same ends. In the model, the steps by which these ends are reached from these beginnings are exhibited."
But this discussion is fully developed in only the last one-quarter to one-third of the book. In its entirety, The Common Sense of Science is looking at three critical steps in the development of science and scientific thinking: first, the union of logic and observation where the two had been separate and distinct activities; second, the rise of a new attitude about investigating the world: cause and effect; and, third and where we find ourselves today, the establishment of statistics and uncertainly as the criteria for developing new theories about how the world, and, indeed, the universe work.
A long time ago, a friend of mine who was a physics student explained uncertainty to me this way: if you know how fast something is going, you don't know where it is, and if you know where it is, you don't know how fast it's going. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but it serves to demonstrate a critical point of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: that observations, by definition, are not static, that the observer is part of the phenomenon he or she observes.
In addressing these three issues (the union of logic and observation, cause and effect, and uncertainty), Bronowski has given us a broad and deeply thoughtful analysis of the three most critical steps in the history of science. Although the book was written in 1951, its discussion is as pertinent today as the day it was written. And that may be one of the problems that intimidate most non-scientists about science. Because, in fact, we are still getting used to the idea of science as something that is, by definition, uncertain and what Einstein would call, "a local phenomenon" in terms of both time and space. That is, the old safe and comforting certainty has gone out of science, the kind of certainty that says, yes, smoking causes lung cancer or no, apples never fall up, and gives the exact causes why these things should be so. In fact, we know that smoking does not always cause lung cancer (or at least not in the time frame we're working with here on Earth). It might eventually cause lung cancer in everyone who smoked if they lived long enough, but we don't know what "long enough" is and, in the meantime, we're stuck with the current lifespan. That's Einstein's "local phenomenon." Instead of certainty and cause-and-effect, we now have to make do with correlation and probability, and that is not nearly as comforting as certainty.
But the real core of The Common Sense of Science is the development of scientific thinking from the original point of reasoning without observation, to reasoning based on observation and the consequent development of cause-and-effect thinking, to the current reliance on statistics and uncertainty. While Bronowski spends the last two chapters dealing with the "truth and value" of scientific thinking and the degree to which, in our daily lives, we are all scientific thinkers, I think this portrait of the development of scientific thinking is the real core of the book, and its real value. It should be on everyone's Must Read list.