Anatomy of Discovery

Discovery Is Generally Part Of A Logic. Therein A Tale.

Abstract: How does discovery works? It depends if it is about discovering where you put your keys, or if it is about discovering new scientific laws. Differently from the former, the latter always require philosophical jumps. Be it only to discard vast amounts of obsolete neurology. However most of “scientific discovery” is safe, being mostly about filling up the details of huge theories. Most of science cannot be anything else than about small stuff.


This is a tale of two scientific practices, at the extremities of the same spectrum. Surprisingly, they are antagonistic: the practice of small science is all too often the enemy of big science (it occupies minds, and leaves no space for the big interrogations). The theory of Ptolemy required at least three “epicycles” within “epicycles” to handle Mars alone. Even then that was not enough and Ptolemy cheated. This complicated logic was small science because the philosophy it used as context was small.

Basic Sketch In Plato Elaborated Further By Ptolemy, 6 Centuries Later

Basic Sketch In Plato Elaborated Further By Ptolemy, 6 Centuries Later

The Ptolemaic system had to introduce weird notions such as the “equant” around which the main orbit would happen at a constant angular motion, and so. This built-up of “necessary” complexities to make work previous “necessities” is not without reminding us of Quantum Field Theory’s weirder and weirder “explanations”, piled up high on top of each other.

An article in Scientia Salon on “the anatomy of scientific discovery: a case study” is ambitious, starting with its title. [Remarks below were not published by a third party as “too advanced for a general audience”. I apparently hold the readers of this site in high esteem!]

The SS article narrates the discovery of “Spontaneous Electric Fields” (abbreviated to “Spontelectrics”). However, while charming and instructive, in a smallish way, it is highly misleading, considering its all-encompassing title.

The article initially makes grand claims about what its purpose is:

“How do scientists discover new phenomena, and, just as important, how do they persuade other scientists… During its course, they do their very best to prove that their discovery is wrong, perhaps because it contradicts some well-established law. They set out to show that their new phenomenon may, in the polite phraseology of science, be an artifact…”

The first mistake here is implicit. The author reduces implicitly science to phenomenology (to “discover new phenomena”).

This is a mistake, it is too reductive. Really Big Science, as found in mathematics and physics, is about enormously complex theories, built upon a few facts. Big science is all about interpreting some facts, and organize that in a theory. A theory and its “laws” can be so strong that they prevent to discover, accidentally or not, anything outside of what it considers “relevant”.

Big scientific theories frame the discourse and reduce the facts that can be “observed”… Or the facts that will try (very hard) to observe. So Big Scientific theories tend to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To an extent that is surprising, theory controls phenomenology. We observe what theory tells us too observe. And how.

For example Aristotle claim that the heavenly bodies were part of an “ether” (not a material body). It was just a step from there to claim the Moon was a signal from god. Islam made it. Thus Muslim specialists spy on the Moon to know when god tells us when Ramadan starts. They observe, but they observe according to a theory.

This is why small science is easy, and big science is hard. Small science, by definition, works within a theoretical model it takes for granted. Whereas big scientific discoveries change paradigms.

The second mistake the author of “anatomy of discovery” makes is to give a virtuous view of science (scientists “do their best to prove” they are wrong).

Actually this is not true at all for really big science. Quite the opposite. Scientists do not “do their best” to prove that all they have painfully learned is wrong. Not only would that be a career busting mood, there is a neurological aspect. Mental inertia.

Big scientific interpretation is a form of neurology, and, scientists or not, people do not tend, or like, to “do their best” to prove their neurology wrong.

Then the author of the Scientia Salon article deflates his claim completely by “restrict[ing] ourselves here to the quite serendipitous, experimental discoveries, those that take place quite unexpectedly.”

It is quite rare that such discoveries break a paradigm. It can happen: the Michelson Morley experiment, an electromagnetic experiment showed that the simplest interpretation of the (then recently devised) ether theory could not be right.

However, looking at history, when the discovery of a really new phenomenon happens, Big Scientific models tend to stay unchanged.

A contemporary example of a potentially giant discovery is Dark Energy.

Dark Energy made the old cosmological model something one does not need anymore (it is its own “cosmic inflation”). I explained this in Billion Year Old Universe”.

The situation right now is that the official theory on cosmology has TWO different inflationary mechanisms. I have just ONE, the one that is observed. My theory is more powerful philosophically, and it’s less complex mathematically, and it depends upon much fewer hypotheses, and mine are observationally grounded.

However “scientists” working in cosmology have been keen NOT to notice my main point, that is that my theory is much simpler in all ways, thus much more powerful. Why did professional cosmologists not notice the obvious? Because they have a vested interest in the established mental order, the mandarins of which, they are. Because, if one adopted a Dark Energy centric model, all of theoretical cosmology (what goes beyond what is observed for sure) would be wiped out. Something that can be wiped out as an error is less honorable.

How is Big Science discovered? Feynman looked at it, and concluded that there was no rule.

However, I think there is. Big science is  generally discovered through Big Philosophy (Special Relativity does not escape the rule; Poincare’ and Lorentz introduced the “local time” theory to discover SR).

Meanwhile, those who really discover the big ideas, having assaulted the neurology of mandarins, will be punished.

They should be thankful.

The painless life is not worth having.

[Take that, Marcus Aurelius!]

Patrice Ayme’

Censored notes on the initial SS article:

Although presented as a big deal in SS, “Spontelectrics” is anything but. It’s just a case of contrary electric fields, the sort discovered by Faraday to explain the “Faraday Cage”. (Actually discovered by Benjamin Franklin, a rare American genius.) Make no mistake: it is interesting.

However, it is thoroughly small science, violating nothing important.

A bigger mystery, still unexplained: how rubbing one material on another can create electrostatic charge. This effect known to the Ancient Greeks require Quantum Physics we don’t master too well.

Another question rejected as irrelevant at SS is the question of why did the Geocentric System reign so long? My answer (not even attempted on SS), partly given in the past, has to do with fascism, intellectual and political. The Ptolemaic System was imposed, and endured, PRECISELY because it was bad.

For the bad, bad is good, and good, bad. So anything favoring the first is good.


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6 Responses to “Anatomy of Discovery”

  1. ianmillerblog Says:

    I am far from convinced that scientists want to let go of a theory they hold dear. As one example, in my youth I proposed that the bending vibrations of chemical bonds in certain rigid systems would follow pendulum dynamics as long as the fields from the other bonds ran ran parallel to that bond, and as a consequence I could calculate the anharmonicity of the vibration up to about five overtones for the few suitable molecules that had observational data. Since then, there has been an expansion in what is called molecular dynamics, and they assume the bending modes follow simple harmonic motion. I once went to a conference and spoke to some of these experts, and pointed out that once serious bending occurred, 1/2 theta squared is a somewhat different function from 1 minus cos theta. They were stunned, not having bothered to have done a sufficient literature search to find my paper, BUT equally they had no intention of taking notice. They would have had to rewrite all those computer programs, AND have to admit on their next funding application that they had been wrong. No point doing that if they don’t have to. My personal view is that the way science is funded, with the peer review system, guarantees acceptance of whatever standard model is going, because if you do not follow it, you don’t get funded.

    • gmax Says:

      Money is power and absolute money corrupts absolutely. Are scientists begging for money different from whores asking johns for cash?

      • ianmillerblog Says:

        With the odd exception, such as non-mainstream theoreticians, you need cash to do science. Since the cash supports students lacking in said cash, yes, I think there are differences. Mind you, in some cases who is the most virtuous, or even useful, is a somewhat debatable point.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Indeed. I went through this too, and I am as cynical. I really was first witness to horror stories (all the way to murder, actually! I knew a guy, a professor, who used his power brazenly in all sort of ways, including to get girls. In the end he got the Trotsky terminal treatment!)
      It’s all about power, and it’s surprising any science gets done at all… So are human societies, and their substructures.

  2. gmax Says:

    Hey, don’t give up on Scientia Salon. Pretty incestuous, I must admit (always same sort of comments by silly guys, like labnut lists).

    I think they appreciate, but fear your comments would upset the fragile egos of the professors they try desperately to attract. Remember the prof full of titles, with hundreds of students who claimed fishes felt no pain? You demolished him on his own ground.

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