One of the classes that I took in college got into the history of science and technology. This was an appropriate enough subject, considering I was at Georgia Tech. One of the books we used was the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas S. Kuhn, not to be confused with yo-yo guru Tom Kuhn.


You may have heard the phrase “paradigm shift,” before. This is the book that coined the phrase. In this context, a paradigm is basically a way of looking at the world. Your knowledge influences what it is you think you see, and new knowledge can change that. In The Day the Universe Changed, James Burke tells a joke about someone going up to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and observing what a bunch of morons people in the middle ages were, since when they saw the sunrise, they thought it was the sun going around the earth, and not the earth going around the sun, which every school kid knows is the case. Wittgenstein is said to have responded, “Yeah, but I wonder what it would have looked like if the sun had been going around the earth.” As Burke goes on to say, it would have looked exactly the same.


That's a paradigm shift for you. Your view of the universe changes based on what you know. You see the same things, but what they mean has changed completely. To go back to the earth around the sun thing, the ancients believed that the earth was the center of the universe, and the sun, moon and all the planets orbited earth. Also, each planet was mounted in one or more crystal spheres, so that there was a nesting system of spheres rotating within each other. Some planets were mounted on smaller spheres that turned within a larger sphere that made up their orbit, so as to explain the observed differences in speed compared to what one would expect from perfectly normal, circular motion.


As time went on, astronomers made new observations and the system had to be adjusted to account for them, leading to new spheres and other strangeness. It became increasingly complicated to use the celestial spheres to explain planetary movement. The math was simplified by moving the sun to the center of the known universe, and later observations gave evidence that this was the case.


Now, I'm skipping over all sorts of history here, for the sake of keeping this a blog and not a thesis, but there was a certain . . . backlash against some of these theories, as exemplified by the experiences of Galileo Galilei. There were a number of reasons for this, but the thrust of Thomas Kuhn's argument is that many scientists and others had a vested interest in keeping the old system predominant. It's what their careers had been built on, and it's what they knew. This new system threatened all of that, and so they worked against it. Over time, more people came over to the new way of thinking and eventually led to our understanding of the solar system today.


To generalize, Kuhn argues that most science takes place in periods of what he calls normal science. During this time, the borders of science are pushed back steadily but relatively slowly. Puzzles come up and established theory is applied to solve them. What tends to happen, though, is at some point puzzles and anomalies can't be solved by existing theory, and that's when a new paradigm begins to develop. New theories are advanced to try to explain the things the old theory can't, and this period is referred to as revolutionary science. Over time, a new paradigm develops that explains the old system and the new anomalies, and normal science resumes.


There's flaws with this approach, of course, and it's been a long time since I last studied all of this. I find the subject interesting, though, and a useful way to look at the history of science, a useful paradigm, if you will. The important take away from this, for me, is to be aware that people sometimes, quite literally, really do see the world in different ways from myself.