Newton was wrong – And other scientific revolutions

When James Clerk Maxwell finished his famous equations describing electromagnetic waves, physics was ready and complete. Together with Newtons laws of motion they explained all known phenomena of the nature. Even Lord Kelvin said, that only thing to do with physics is to refine some measurements to get more accurate results.

Nothing could have been further from the truth and the great revolutions of 20th century, relativity and quantum mechanics, changed everything we know about the nature. Reality was not exact and deterministic after all, like Newton and Maxwell predicted. The reality of quantum mechanics was alien to human mind, the subatomic particles did not behave according to classical equations and you could only calculate probabilities for their properties.

But was it really a revolution, that trashed all that was before? No, it was not. Newton’s and Maxwell’s equations remain perfectly valid today and can still be used. Newton was never wrong, his model was completely correct and matched observations perfectly. Only when we started to make more sophisticated observations of reality became it obvious, that Newton’s and Maxwell’s laws were not complete in all situations.

Notion of “Scientific revolutions” is often used to argue against scientific method. Doesn’t the fact that old theories are replaced by new ones prove, that science is limited and we can not reach true knowledge of the universe. I tend to think, that it proves just the opposite.

Modern technology already enables us to utilize quantum phenomena, but this is only the beginning. Within next 50 years we start to see technologies, that have belonged to domain of science fiction only. The universe will open up to mankind in a way, that we could not even imagine a hundred years ago . Physics, evolution theory, computer technology, have all crafted our view of the reality in revolutionary ways.

But is this really a Scientific Revolution in a sense, that Thomas Kuhn meant in  his famous book? [3]

The true power of science is, that our knowledge and understanding increases progressively, not through revolutions. The power of scientific method, not a well defined term, is that science is able to fix itself. Even if Newton’s and Maxwell’s theories are known to be incomplete, they have never been wrong [4]. Who claims that they are, does not understand physics and physical models. These old theories describe the reality so well, that they are still used where they are applicable, because they are easier to use than quantum electrodynamics or theory of relativity. They still describe every day phenomena in many cases very accurately.

Often we fail to see, that physicists do not necessarily claim that the equations are the same thing than the underlying reality. The equations, are just tools to model the reality and make useful predictions. If  simple tools are good enough for the task at hand, you will use them instead of more complicated ones.

Today, we know that physics is far from complete. We cannot explain everything, maybe never can. But this does not mean we have stopped making progress or that there are no natural processes, that we do not know of. Of course there are.

But it also does not mean, when new processes are recovered, that we would have to abandon all our previous knowledge in the fires of all consuming scientific revolution.

Looking back to history of science it is easy to see, that the case will quite probably be just the opposite.







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