Friday, February 4, 2011

Science: Speculation Leads to Deep Thoughts

Here is part of the definition of the word science as it was defined almost a century ago:
1. Knowledge; knowledge of principles and causes; ascertained truth of facts.
2. Accumulated and established knowledge, which has been systematized and formulated with reference to the discovery of general truths or the operation of general laws; knowledge classified and made available in work, life, or the search for truth; comprehensive, profound, or philosophical knowledge.
3. Especially, such knowledge when it relates to the physical world and its phenomena, the nature, constitution, and forces of matter, the qualities and function of living tissues, etc.; -- called also natural science, and physical science.
4. Any branch or departament of systematized knowledge considered as a distinct field of investigation or object of study; as, the science of astronomy, of chemistry, or of mind.
Thank you Webster's of 1912.

I don't think we'd disagree much on the definition. Science is knowledge. Science is principles and causes. Science is systematic fields of study.

But does it have to be? Is there some use of stepping outside the expected and speculating for a while? Maybe stepping outside of the typical can lead to some interesting speculation and ideas. Thought experiments have a long history in science. Why shouldn't idle speculation on seemingly absurd topics?

A couple of years ago Brian Trent wrote about a particular bit of speculation. The result was Was There Ever a Dinosaur Civilization?.

Now don't laugh. You may be thinking "but there wasn't a dinosaur civilization so it doesn't matter". But how do you know there wasn't one? If the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago then any evidence of a proto-civilization would be 65 million years old. What would such evidence have looked like then and what would it look like now?

But even if you think the idea is completely absurd it still leads to interesting speculation. What is a civilization? What happens in the early stages of civilizations? What physical and mental characteristics are required to create a civilization? Why did mammals evolve them when dinosaurs and other creatures did not? And why wasn't it until long after the dinosaurs went extinct that some mammals evolved that far?

Even a seemingly silly line of speculation can get you thinking about the causes of civilizations, the remains of early civilizations, and more. You can keep speculating and thinking beyond the article. Why did civilizations not fizzle out? What is the advantage that made civilized humans more successful than uncivilized ones? Was civilization inevitable? If it was inevitable for humans why wasn't it for others?

Brian's article is well written, footnoted, and thought provoking. A silly idea leads one to consider all sorts of scientific disciplines and ideas in detail. Not bad for some idle speculation.

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