An Interesting quote on Certainty in Science

We are all deeply conscious today that the enthusiasm of our forbearers for the marvellous achievements of Newtonian mechanics led them to make generalisations in this area of predictability which, indeed, we have generally tended to believe before 1960, but which we now recognise were false. We collectively wish to apologise for having misled the general educated public by spreading ideas about the determinism of systems satisfying Newton’s laws of motion that, after 1960, were to be proved incorrect.

An extract from a paper entitled The recently recognised failure of predictability in Newtonian Dynamics
Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series A, Vol 407, No. 1832

This is taken from a paper written by the late Sir James Lighthill, who at the time was President of the International Union of Theoritical and Applied Mechanics, and who incidentally also held the position of Lucansian Professor of Mathematics in Cambridge, a position which was first filled by Isaac Newton himself (Stephen Hawking is currently holding the post). The reference to Newtonian mechanics is significant here because it was in this area more than any other that the notion of absolute truth was (is?) most often associated.
The idea that Physics (built on mathematical rules) is the most fundamental knowledge that exists, and all other knowledge is built on this, can be traced back to the writings of the the positivist Auguste Compte.

Compte coined the term sociology; he saw it as giving meaning to all the other sciences – holding them all together as it were.

 This is nicely caricatured in the cartoon below.


Compte didn’t actually consider Mathematics to be a science; it was merely a tool used by scientists!

Here’s a rather more profound clip from Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man. At 2:00

We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.

Thanks to my friend Prof Kirk Junker for pointing out the paper to me.


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