The Great Myth of Science

As human beings we make sense of the world around us by telling each other stories. Who told the first story is unknown; but that we’ve been doing it for millennia is certain. Over time some of these stories were so powerful that entire religions sprung up around them. Today we usually call those stories myths. Fanciful tales that are obviously not true. Imaginative explanations from a time when science was not there to give us the True answers.

Yet for all that we believe ourselves to be living in more rational times, we still have plenty of myths of our own, even if we don’t use them as inspiration for ritual sacrifice. One prevalent myth is the myth of how scientific advancement comes to be. It usually goes something like this:

Once upon a time scientists in -field of science- were just bumbling along, not really making any kind of progress. Then along came a young man who was a Genius. During a sudden flash of inspiration he suddenly understood the Truth of how the world worked. Only the Genius could have understood this, because he was so much smarter than normal people. When he told the other scientists about this Truth they first laughed at the Genius, but later they understood that the Genius had actually been right all along. Eventually everyone was Enlightened by the Truth, and lived happily ever after. The End

This myth is rather pervasive in western culture, showing up not only in science lessons, but also in movies, and media coverage of science topics. If you’re watching a Hollywood movie and a brilliant young scientist has an idea that all the older scientists laugh at, you can be 100% certain that the young guy is actually right. Even the people with the most nonsensical of scientific hypotheses can demand to be taken seriously in the media, because after all people laughed at Einstein too didn’t they?

So apart from the casual sexism ignoring all the women who have contributed to science, what is wrong with this myth? Well it simply is not true. While we usually ascribe scientific ideas to certain people, that doesn’t mean that no one else would have been smart enough to come up with them. Newton and Leibnitz both invented calculus independently (and had a huge fight over who was first). Darwin only published his theory of evolution after being contacted by Alfred Russel Wallace, who had independently come up with some very similar ideas.

Apart from that, the revolutionary ideas that completely shake up a field are the exception. In general science is slowly advanced, paper-by-paper, experiment-by-experiment, observation-by-observation, by the collected effort of the hundreds or thousands of people working in a certain field. Science advances by collaboration, not the sudden inspiration of exceptional people. Newton (hardly the most modest man) himself ascribed his ideas to ‘standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Darwin discussed his ideas with others for many years, shaping them into the form he finally published. In the case of Einstein, the wikipedia page on the history of special relativity gives a good overview of all the prior work by other researchers that went into it: .

In this blog I hope to give a clearer picture of how science actually works (warts and all) by using my own work as an example. As I’m an aerospace engineer by training I’ll also be writing about aerospace topics in general, and my field (materials science, i.e. the science of the stuff that stuff is made of) in particular. I hope you enjoy reading. Please feel free to leave any feedback in the comments.
John-Alan Pascoe

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