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"Standing on the Shoulders of Giants" by R. Scott Mongrain - part 2 of 3
By Admin (from 16/11/2010 @ 11:00:27, in en - Science and Society, read 1423 times)


Consider, for example, the wheel. Mary Bellis, credited by Forbes Best of the Web for her contribution of information about inventors and inventions, states in an article at about.com that the wheel was very likely first invented in 3500 BC in Mesopotamia (Bellis). Inventions prior to this had, for the most part, been very basic extensions of the human being such as bone, stone, or wooden tools used to carry out tasks the fingernails or arms alone could not. As such, the inventor of the wheel did not have a previous model to work from. As Ricky Gervais says in his comedy special “Animals”, “…it’s not like he saw some on holiday and went ‘that would be good …’ he made it up!” Despite the comedic nature of Gervais’s comments, he makes an astute point about the basis of original thought. A truly novel concept does not draw from previous findings and does not have a parallel in precedent. While the wheel was also “invented” by other civilizations, the precedent had already been set in Mesopotamia, nullifying the novelty in the larger scheme of things. These latter inventors are akin to children, who believe that they are the original creators of ways to get around the rules, in that they perceive themselves to be thinking originally in that respect. In a closed system, certainly they may be thinking quite originally. However, as is often stated by the children’s parents, the concepts are not in and of themselves novel. The phrase used by my parents around my house when I was a child was “I pulled the same stunts at your age; don’t think you’re so smart.”

In considering scientific discovery in the light of these definitions and examples, a marked distinction is made: the difference between the aforementioned concepts, and that of the connection of ideas associated with scientific discovery itself. This process is neither truly original as in the case of the invention of the wheel, nor is it original in perception as in the case of the child’s isolated system. While Merriam-Webster defines discovery as “the act or process of obtaining sight or knowledge of for the first time”, implying that discovery is a process based in originality, I believe this definition to be imprecise when applied to the products of science. I am referring to the body of scientific discoveries which, whether by accident as in the case of chewing gum, or by the fruition of directed and applied research as in the case of the laser, are made by following the scientific method. Merriam-Webster defines this method as “principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses”. This definition, along with several examples, will help to further illustrate the difference to which I refer.