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Assessing Thomas Kuhn’s legacy: “It’s not so clear that there will be any more revolutions in physics”

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In “A Q&A with Ian Hacking on Thomas Kuhn’s Legacy as “The Paradigm Shift” Turns 50” (Scientific American, April 27, 2012), Gary Stix interviews Ian Hacking on the significance of science philosopher Thomas Kuhn, a significance Hacking seems to want to undermine, as relevant only to “an earlier era”: We are told,

Canadian science philosopher Ian Hacking has written an introduction to the 50th-anniversary edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that addresses the somewhat dated nature of Kuhn’s work, even while casting an admiring eye on the original accomplishment.

Why dated?

How are Kuhn’s ideas perhaps less pertinent?

It’s not so clear that there will be any more revolutions in physics. There will be a lot of surprises, but whether there will be revolutions is not at all clear. The stability of what’s called the Standard Model of particle physics and its ability to make so many clever predictions with immense precision suggests that we may just be stuck with it, and there may never be an overthrow of that.

So the search for the Higgs boson is very much within the existing order of things?

It’s obviously normal science in the Kuhnian sense. One of the things Kuhn said about normal science is that people “expect” things to be discovered. Today scientists expect to find the Higgs. Once we see some exact numbers around it, there will be all sorts of new things to do. But those things will simply be a stabilization or confirmation of what people already expect. It’s just possible, though, that all the structure around the Higgs is all wrong, and that would refute my claim that there would no more revolutions.

Ah, yes. And if not the Higgs, then something else might refute it.

It’s worth noting that the astronomy system codified by Ptolemy lasted for about 1200 years, during which there were no revolutions, and then there were plenty. But who knew when they were going to happen?

If Hacking or others want to put down Kuhn, they’ll have to do better than this.

2 Replies to “Assessing Thomas Kuhn’s legacy: “It’s not so clear that there will be any more revolutions in physics”

  1. 1
    Mapou says:

    It’s never clear to those who are raised in a paradigm where or when the next revolution is going to come. However, history teaches us that scientific revolutions always arise to address phenomena that the previous paradigms failed to explain. Scientists usually grow so accustomed to the lack of an explanation that they stop noticing its absence.

    The problem of motion in physics is a case in point. Physicists have never explained why two bodies in relative inertial motion stay in motion. Most physicists today are not even aware of the problem. But Sir Isaac Newton, like Aristotle before him, knew that motion was causal. It bothered Newton a great deal that he could not identify the cause of motion and he eventually ascribed it to God’s sustaining power. Fortunately for us, we have a little bit more knowledge than was available to Newton.

    If one applies causality to motion, one is forced to infer that normal matter is immersed in an immense lattice of energetic particles without which nothing could move. Ancient occult texts had a name for this lattice. It was called a great expanse, a sea of glass like crystal. In the not too distance future, we will learn how to tap into the energy of the lattice for both propulsion and energy production. It will be the greatest paradigm shift of them all.

    I suggest that the next physics revolution will arrive when the problem of motion is solved. You don’t understand motion even if you think you do.

  2. 2
    tragic mishap says:

    Pride goeth before the fall.

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