The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Paperback – Apr 1 1970
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Since the publication of this book in 1962, Kuhn's writings (and many of his ideas, such as "paradigm shift") have been highly influential in academic and popular discourse. This book is must-reading for anyone studying the history and philosophy of science specifically, or cultural or technological change generally.
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Top Customer Reviews
This is where people who outgrow Gould and Dawkins should be coming. It's more dry, and less populist than these two, but it provides for a deeper understanding.
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Though Thomas Kuhn focused on the Copernican Revolution, for me the Quantum Revolution is a more poignant example of paradigm shift. And the latter, like the former, starts with inexplicable phenomena. When the traditional electromagnetic theory of Maxwell's Equations couldn't explain black body radiation, Boltzmann and then Plank developed a set of equations with quantized energy levels to explain the phenomena. Later, Niels Bohr formulated the quantized levels of atoms to explain their discrete emissions.
As Kuhn says, "When, in the development of a natural science, an individual or group first produces a synthesis able to attract most of the next generation's practitioners, the older schools gradually disappear." In this case, Bohr persuaded his colleagues about the new view and pushed quantum mechanics into the forefront, securing it as the dominant theory in modern physics. But there were oppositions. Even Einstein, who proposed the quantization of light, could not accept the probabilistic nature of matter-energy as described by the Uncertainty Principle. For him, "God does not play dice."
The shift from Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics is a shift from a deterministic view of the universe to a probabilistic one, a change of beliefs and values. For Einstein and others, accepting quantum mechanics seemed like returning to the pre-scientific age, where a person, even a scientist, couldn't quantify and analyze and predict natural events. When the way of doing science changes, so do the tools. Whereas calculus was the mathematical tool of Newtonian mechanics, statistics and transforms, Fourier or others, and the related group theories are those of quantum mechanics. And we know, even outside of science, that using different tools creates different results.
For Kuhn, "Paradigms may be prior to, more binding, and more complete than any set of rules for research that could be unequivocally abstracted from them." So the preferences toward a deterministic worldview and the corresponding tools predisposed scientists to solve those problems with a well-defined solution. Motion under gravitational and electromagnetic forces in the macroscopic world. On the other hand, the preference toward a probabilistic worldview and the corresponding tools predispose scientists to focus on the uncertain boundaries between matter and energy, space and time, position and momentum, and energy and time. And so, "one of the things a scientific community acquires with a paradigm is a criterion for choosing problems that, while the paradigm is taken for granted, can be assumed to have solutions." Following the Quantum Revolution, scientists developed quantum electrodynamics (QED) and quantum chromodynamics (QCD) through normal science. But when string and other theories begin to emerge, scientists must again reevaluate their models and even more importantly their practices and worldviews.
Through The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, we begin to see scientific progress's jagged path and appreciate the subjective parts of doing science. And instead of worshiping science, we take on the scientific mindset of observing phenomena and analyzing data and revealing biases and modifying models.
Kuhn postulates that there is a model, or paradigm, if you will, called "normal science." Virtually the entire scientific (and even non-scientific) community subscribe to this model. The role of a scientist operating within the normal parameters of a given paradigm is to "tweak" the model; that is, make further advances in our collective knowledge, but within the model's framework. But there always seem to be anomalies to a given explanation of the natural world, and the anomalies can mount, and seem to reach a "critical mass," (itself an expression from another paradigm shift), and eventually the entire paradigm is "shifted" to a new one. Certainly one of the most famous examples, cited by Kuhn, is the revolution in our thinking about our place in the universe, which was led by Galileo and Copernicus. Prior to this revolution, the standard model was that the earth was the center of the universe, with the sun, moon, and all the stars circling it. And they did so in perfect circles, because that is the way God would have wanted it. Perfection. But the observed motion of the celestial bodies mounted, perfect circles were imposed on perfect circles, in an effort to explain the motions, but eventually such structures became unwieldy, and unworkable. The time became right for the "paradigm shift" that stated it was the earth that circled the sun, which was just a small star in a universe full of them. Kuhn cites other examples, notably when Lavoisier published his paper in 1777 on the oxygen theory of combustion, which revolutionized our ideas on chemical processes. Yet another example is the 19th century theory that the universe was composed of "ether" through which waves traveled. That too has been discarded.
Kahn devotes specific chapters to detailing how the anomalies mount to a given paradigm, a "crisis" in scientific thinking occurs, followed by a revolution in that thinking, led by a very few men, and our world view changes, which Kahn declares to be progress. The author quotes Max Planck to sardonically and sadly note how that progress actually occurs: "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." Another enduring quote for me came from Francis Bacon: "Truth emerges more readily from error than confusion."
In the final chapter Kuhn raises, and briefly discusses some still very unanswered questions: "Why should the enterprise sketched above move steadily ahead as, say, art, political theory, or philosophy does not? Why is progress a perquisite reserved almost exclusively for the activities we call science?" "Why should scientific communities be able to reach a firm consensus unattainable in other fields?"
I've read the criticisms of this book which are posted in the Amazon reviews. Certainly one of the most valid is that Kuhn gave very limited coverage to the paradigm shift from Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics.
Lastly, I first read this book on the plane back from Vietnam (yes, as in "the war.") I was in desperate need to think about something else, and found it somewhat comforting that in some human enterprise some forward progress was being made. Still, the questions that Kuhn raises at the end of his book remain as valid today as 40 years ago: why progress in science; yet in the political field - and by extension, war , for example, the same old stupid mistakes continue to be made over and over again. Kuhn's work remains a five-star read, and I am pleased to see that as of this posting, his book is in the top 1000 best sellers.