Imagination and the Growth of Science (Tallman lectures of 1964-5)

Taylor, A. M

Physics, which the Scots call Natural Philosophy, is a body of knowledge based on observation of the universe (inanimate as distinct from living) and restricted to phenomena in which chemical change is not involved. But observation is not enough. During the last four hundred years scientific knowledge has grown, at an ever increasing pace, from the slight beginnings inherited from earlier generations to its present gigantic size. The rate of growth has accelerated as the experimental method has developed. To be successful in promoting the discovery of new knowledge, experiments must be designed in which the consequences are significant. The results must be meaningful. They are so, only if the experiments be prompted by reasoned deduction from some hypothesis, itself suggested by previous observations. This is the kernel of the experimental method-the method by which theory and observation, hypothesis and experiment, go forward hand-in-hand toward their unknown goal. Experiment asks a question of Nature; observation listens for her answer. Success depends not only on an attentive ear or eye, but on two more subtle factors: skill in interpretation, as well as felicity in interrogation. To achieve an advance in knowledge, the experimenter must put the right question, understand the reply, and have the wit to perceive the next step in the argument. Inspiration and imagination, boldness and perseverance are qualities necessary to the scientist no less than the artist, musician, or poet. The history of science is but a set of variations on this theme. The fallowing brief account of the chief discoveries in physical science attempts to outline the historical development of the subject and to highlight the outstanding triumphs of the creative imagination.

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