50 Years Of Kuhn's Scientific Revolutions
January 1, 2013

50 Years Of Scientific Revolutions

Jedidiah Becker for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

While 2012 was a hallmark year for science, one exceptionally important event went largely unnoticed by most casual science observers: The 50th anniversary of one of the most influential and revolutionary science books that you've probably never heard of.

In 1962 the University of Chicago Press published just over a thousand copies of a little book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by a relatively young and unknown academic named Thomas Kuhn. Trained as a physicist at Harvard, Kuhn taught at the Ivy League university for several years before taking a tenured position at the University of California at Berkeley.

While still working as an instructor at Harvard in the late 1950s, the university´s president James B. Conant had just launched a new program requiring all undergraduate students to take at least one general science course. Conant entertained the novel notion that every educated person in a modern society should possess at least a basic grasp of the sciences — an idea that was eventually adopted by essentially every university in the country. Today both junior colleges and elite universities alike require even film majors and art students to take at least one basic class in biology.


In 1956, Conant asked Kuhn to teach one of these general science courses for non-science majors and Kuhn dutifully accepted. And while professors today often scoff at teaching these basic introductory courses, Kuhn seized the opportunity to delve into the history of science, focusing largely on case studies of early scientists and scientific theories. While preparing the syllabus for this class, Kuhn stumbled upon the writings of one extremely famous yet unlikely scientific thinker — an encounter that not only changed the trajectory of his own career but one which would eventually turn the whole world of modern science on its head.

That early scientist was Aristotle, and while reading through his treatise Physics, a startling thought occurred to Kuhn: While Aristotle's reflections on politics, ethics and logic are brilliantly insightful and remain relevant for us today, his writings about the physical sciences make him look like a complete moron by modern standards.

Reflecting on this moment of crisis and perplexity years later, Kuhn wrote: “I rapidly discovered that Aristotle had known almost no mechanics at all. “I found it bothersome because, as I was reading him, Aristotle appeared not only ignorant of mechanics, but a dreadfully bad physical scientist as well. About motion, in particular, his writings seemed to me full of egregious errors, both of logic and of observation.” And yet as one of the pillars of Western thought for over two millennia, Aristotle´s rare and dazzling genius was beyond question.

This paradox unleashed on a barrage of questions that began to plague Kuhn: “How could [Aristotle´s] characteristic talents have deserted him so systematically when he turned to the study of motion and mechanics? Equally, if his talents had so deserted him, why had his writings in physics been taken so seriously for so many centuries after his death? Those questions troubled me. I could easily believe that Aristotle had stumbled, but not that, on entering physics, he had totally collapsed.”

And yet almost as soon as Kuhn had posed these questions, their answers began to crystallize in his mind.

What Kuhn realized — and what later become the core of his revolutionary little science book — was that we cannot truly understand Aristotelian science or any other historical scientific thought so long as we view it through the lens of 'modern' scientific knowledge. Instead, if we want to understand the thought of pre-modern scientists like Aristotle, Francis Bacon or Ren Descartes, we have to first examine the intellectual traditions and frameworks within which these scientists lived, breathed and worked.

As one of the most famous and accessible examples of this idea, Kuhn pointed out that the simple concept of “motion” had very different connotations in Greek language and culture than it does today in, say, modern English. For Aristotle, “motion” was inseparably intertwined with the notion of “change” in general — a seemingly simple semantic distinction that, however, profoundly affected the way the iconic philosopher was able to think about objects moving in space.

With this crucial insight in mind, Kuhn began to study scientific thought in its historical and philosophical context. From antiquity, through the Middle Ages and Enlightenment, all the way up to the twentieth century, Kuhn explored the writings of scientific legends as diverse as Ptolemy, Copernicus, Newton, Coulomb,  Faraday and Planck as well as their lesser known contemporaries and colleagues. What emerged from his studies was a perspective on what is commonly called ℠scientific progress´ that differed radically from that held by most scientists and philosophers of that time.

The advance of science had long been viewed as a gradual accumulation of knowledge and understanding about how our world works. Brandishing a treasure trove of historical data and keen sociological insight, Kuhn challenged this conception and claimed that scientific progress is actually the product of successive revolutions against accepted scientific paradigms — jarring, periodic eruptions of creative destruction in which one flawed way of viewing the world is suddenly discredited and deserted while scientists scramble to replace it with a new, more accurate picture of reality. In this view, scientific progress is not a steady march towards absolute truths about our universe, but rather a series of leaps away from less accurate explanations of how nature works.

While a synopsis of Kuhn´s penetrating and nuanced argument for this view of scientific progress won´t be attempted here, suffice it to say that his magnum opus (he modestly called it a “sketch”) fundamentally altered the way that modern scientists view their profession. Though it´s an extremely cerebral and challenging work to read, this 172-page meditation has sold over 1.4 million copies to date and is one of the most referenced academic books of all time. In short, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is to academia what Avatar is to the international box office and what Adam Smith´s The Wealth of Nations is to the study of economics.

Kuhn not only single-handedly popularized terms like “paradigm shift” and “normal science,” he also pricked the collective conscience of science and forced it to become more self-aware and self-critical. If he deflated some of modern science´s triumphalism, he also injected it with a healthy dose of circumspection and sobriety. For a half a century his book has served to remind scientific researchers in all disciplines that while they may be on the cutting edge of science today, their understanding of the world may yet elicit snickers from tomorrow´s school children.