by Rudolf BALANDIN, member of the V. I. Vernadsky Scientific Heritage Commission, Russian Academy of Sciences
At first blush the history of astronomy seems to be of interest only to a cohort of specialists. But looking through the recently published collection of "Historical-Astronomical Studies, No. XXVIII" compiled by the S. I. Vavilov Institute of the History of Natural Science and Technology (RAS), we can see how important this subject-matter is for the cognition of the world we live in and, first and foremost, of the laws governing the development of science, and its role in societal life (Moscow, Nauka Publishers, 2003).
Readers can find interesting materials on modern astronomy and cosmology, space research and related studies. Here are the names of some of the articles: "Chandra: Moonlight" (about the life work of the American astrophysicist born in India, Nobel prizewinner Subrahmanyan Chandrasekara (1910 - 1995); "Contemporary Knowledge of the Dynamics of Planetary Rings"; "The St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in the 18th Century and its Role in the Dissemination of Newtonianism in Europe"; "Ancient Astronomy in South America"... Two discussions appear to us both intriguing and instructive: about scientific revolutions in the hard sciences (astronomy, mathematics, physics) and about the hypothetical planet Phaeton. Although truth is not always born in the clashes of opposite opinions, such disputes help nonetheless to see the subject in all its bearings.
There are ups and downs in the development of any science, and so are breakthrough periods when many conventional notions are discarded or rethought in favor of pioneering ideas. Forty years ago Thomas Coon of the United States pointed to the characteristic features of such epochs (in his monograph on the structure of scientific revolutions). This matter still gives much food for thought, it sparks disputes and arguments. But scholars still fail
to agree on certain essential, key points.
Revolutionary turning-points in society and science are one such controversial issue. Thus, Vladimir Kazyutinsky (Ph. D., RAS Institute of Philosophy), questions the very tenability of any analogies in this regard: "New, unorthodox notions cause a psychological shock to many people, while the ouster of old ones has had little in common with violence characteristic of social revolutions." The philosopher must be right in that the breaking of conventional mind sets is a peculiar phenomenon. In some cases, however, violence comes into play in what concerns the ideological groundwork of a social system. We might recall the "overthrow" of the geocentric system of the Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, the execution of Giordano Bruno for the opposition to that system, and the persecutions against Galileo Galilei. And we ought to remember, of course, that social upheavals touch off violent clashes of ideas in most different spheres of theoretical and practical activity, and help overcome conventional stereotypes in philosophy and the sciences.
Dr. Kazyutinsky is certainly right in that different interpretations of scientific revolutions by various authors result in hollow rhetoric. And yet we cannot agree with a statement like this: "New images of reality supplant the old ones in a long competition." But Ptolemy, who was the first to propound a mathematically substantiated system of the world (as viewed from the earth), did not compete with anyone as he said the earth was a sphere and as he invented the astrolabe. And in advancing his heliocentric system Nikolaus Copernicus did not fight against the Ptolemaic System. The conflict of these two theories, with all their merits and demerits, spilled into another, religious sphere in dramatic and even tragic repercussions. And the idea that the sun was the center of the universe suggested way back in the 3rd century B. C. by Aristarchus of Samos quarrels with the actual truth, too.
A hundred years before Copernicus, the outstanding thinker of the Middle Ages Nikolaus of Kusa (1401 - 1464) wrote about an infinite universe with no center and no circumference but with a multitude of inhabited worlds. Proceeding from these ideas, Giordano Bruno restricted the heliocentric system only to the solar system, and the geocentric one - to the earth and the moon. Dr. Kazyutinsky is certainly
right by saying that "Bruno outlined a new picture of the world that in its substance became one of the philosophical premises of the Newtonian universe." So the birth of new scientific knowledge is sluggish and contradictory, it includes "minirevolutions" (as Dr. Kazyutinsky puts it), and is linked with the development of philosophy and theology (Nikolaus of Kusa was a bishop and theologian). But is it correct to view - as Thomas Coon did-scientific revolutions in the hard sciences apart from other important phenomena in the social and intellectual spheres?
Trying to lend more credence to his theory, Dr. Kazyutinsky misinterpreted Acad. Vernadsky's views on dramatic changes in the world's makup as a "destructive process". A prominent science historian, Vladimir Vernadsky did indeed speak of the "outbursts" or "flashes" in scientific thought; but he meant also creative efforts in advancing unorthodox ideas and in making discoveries in hitherto novel fields or matters. "This is the image of creation, not destruction", Acad. Vernadsky stressed. In fact, here we deal with the putting of new theoretical constructions on the rains of the old ones-used up to some extent.
Such continuity was the subject of Dr. Yefremov's article (P. K. Sternberg State Institute of Astronomy). Yuri Yefremov says this in part: "The concept of revolutions in science is often visualized in the sense that new knowledge just cancels what is old. In the interpretation of enemies of science-and these are postmodernist philosophers and some of the scientologists - this concept fosters the conclusion about the relativity, transiency and subjectivity of scientific knowledge." The astronomer is rather optimistic in saying that scientific thought marches on "from victory to victory". In the same breath he complains about the slackening interest in the objective cognition of nature. But does it make us any wiser about the heart of the matter? About some
fundamental objective causes related to changes of social ideas, to social and psychological factors? But may be the trouble is in the absence of adequate state policies? Or in the mass media fishing for block-busting sensations, no matter how dubious, how preposterous?.. There are still too many question marks in Dr. Yefremov's article, and his simple arguments are hardly satisfactory.
But he is absolutely right in stressing the existence of the "criterion of universal human practice". This applies to hard facts tested by experience at a given historical stage, and also to empirical generalizations made on this basis. Taking such "building bricks" and "blocks", one can put up different mental constructions. This is how Dr. Alina Yeremeyeva (astronomer) views the progress of science: "An atmosphere of general ideas takes body and form around the core of veritable knowledge (including the model parts of theories and working hypotheses). This atmosphere constitutes an integral system of ideas (not knowledge!) about the fundamental features of the surrounding world, or rather, of this or that aspect (physical, astronomical, biological, etc). This model of the whole is called a scientific picture of the world..."
We would rather add: besides the only material reality (nature) there are also the creations of the human mind and make-believe worlds corresponding to it by and large. Taking one and the same set of factors, one can build different scientific pictures of the world: monocentric (Ptolemy, Copernicus) or polycentric (Nikolaus of Kusa, Giordano Bruno). On the other hand, the nonstationary models of the universe developed by Albert Einstein, Alexander Friedman and other scientists of the 20th century owe their birth above all to the tempestuous progress achieved in the techniques of physical experiments and astronomical observations.
"The commonly accepted picture of the world turns into an object of faith, a dogma and a canon of world outlook," Dr. Yeremeyeva remarks. And then the scientific community, barring rare exceptions, will detail and particularize a "victorious" model and thus contribute to its preeminence. The range of scientific inquiries is thus narrowed down, while sophisticated scientific thought will doggedly cram in ever new facts to make the scientific picture of the world ever more complicated. Such theorists will zealously protect this vision against any encroachments on it, and those who come up with innovative ideas are branded as "enemies of science". A modicum of conser-
vatism is certainly justified in a sense when dubious hypotheses and crazy inventions are touted by the mass media as sensations, when ignorance and obscurantism get so much publicity. But this is not to mean that we should veer into the other extreme and rebut in advance any concepts and ideas that might be out of keeping with tradition.
What Acad. Vernadsky said a hundred years ago still holds water today: "No doubt in our times, too, the truest, most correct and profound scientific world outlook is concealed in some solitary scientists and small groups of researchers whose opinions escape our notice or else excite our displeasure or negation." According to Acad. Vernadsky, scientific world outlook is a complex and peculiar mouthpiece of social psychology, and so it knows both peaks and valleys.
We can only agree with Dr. Vladimir Vizgin (S. I. Vavilov Institute of Natural Science and Technology) who emphasizes the diversity of "the types of scientific revolutions and respective historiographic models. Yet he, like the other participants in the discussion, maintains that breaking an old scientific picture of the world in favor of a new one is always a progressive phenomenon that brings us nearer to the truth. It's true that every successive generation deems it is the pinnacle of human progress. This notion is promoted by numerous publications, textbooks and manuals. It involves both creative energy and willpower to break the inertia of tradition. The fate of non-Euclidean geometry is instructive enough. Its trailblazers are certainly Nikolai Lobachevsky (1792 - 1856) and Janos Boljai (1802 - 1860), even though Karl-Friedrich Gauss (1777 - 1855) had come to this idea earlier but could not venture to break the stereotype. In fact, the headsource of the scientific revolution of the early 20th century must lie in the overcoming of Euclidean geometry that had been holding sway for two thousand years. Just as important was the discovery late in the 19th century of the radioactive decay of atoms believed to be indivisible before.
All the authors of the collection of articles under review are at one in their conviction that only "minirevolutions" are now possible in natural science. As if they were on the verge of the full cognition of the universe that has come into being in a "superrevolutionary" way as a result of the "big bang" and that is still expanding... But where and how? We wish we could tell it! Perhaps the alternative models of the universe were thrown overboard a bit two early? It would be in place to recall how the American physicist and astrophysicist Steven Weinberg (1933 - 1996) describes the first three minutes of the universe after the "big bang". The Nobel prizewinner said the more comprehensible the universe appears, the more nonsensical it looks. It may be that scientists would rather hug illusion when they come up against the sacral substance of the universe, while a bathos of ignorance opens up in the wake of every great revolutionary breakthrough.
Indicative in this sense is yet another discussion-on the Olbers planet (Phaeton) - believed to have broken into fragments, large and small, to form the asteroid belt of the present. This hypothesis, gaining much popularity in the mid-20th century, was then dismissed and forgotten. Of late it has been brought forth from oblivion by Dr. Igor Rezanov, who is its adept and ardent advocate. Replying, Dr. Vitaly Bronstein cites arguments against this idea - he says he is sorry that an earth scientist (Dr. Rezanov is geologist), not a cosmogonist, has attempted to validate it.
While acknowledging that this problem is still unresolved by and large, Dr. Rezanov insists on its right to exist. In his opinion, the history of the terrestrial planets could be elucidated by geological methods only. Dr. Alexander Bagrov (Astrophysicist, RAS Institute of Astronomy) does not agree with Dr. Bronstein - he proves the reality of the planet Phaeton. He says "there is no general picture of the solar system's cosmogony as yet". He is supported by Dr. Idlis, the editor, who is researching in science history. It's one thing to criticize a hypothesis, and quite another to give it up as a bad job. Overall, this discussion stimulates creative quests.
This conclusion is true of all the articles we are reviewing. Dr. Ravil Mukhin (chemist, the Stary Oskol affiliate of the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys) recalls the prediction made my astronomer Sergei Vsekhsvyatsky of the Soviet Union about the presence of rings around all giant planets of the solar system, a prediction that has come true. Says Dr. Mukhin: "The planetary rings represent a new subject within nonlinear dynamics - a discipline developing apace with still many problems awaiting solution." However, his statement about the system of planetary rings which, he says, is an example of spontaneous self - organization may be questioned (he argues that complex three-dimensional structures were formed from the initial unorderly state in a nonlinear medium). But this process took place within the orderly solar system. The old interpretation of the cosmos as an orderly system still holds true; as to the puzzle of its origin, we've got to learn to live with it.
The same is true of studies on the history of ancient astronomical ideas culled from myths and legends of various tribes and peoples. Thus Dr. Lilia Alexeyeva (Nuclear Research Institute, Moscow State University) concludes that the ancestors of European tribes could first see the northern lights at the end of the Ice Age when moving north after herds of deer through melting ice-cap areas. Incidentally, she could have mentioned the pioneering studies on the aurora borealis by the great Russian savant of the 18th century Mikhail Lomonosov.
As to the myths and legends, we should remember about their diversity as a medley of fact and fiction present in public consciousness and collective experience. The personalities of their narrators also played a part. Picking in the many myths and legends, we can easily find descriptive analogies of the northern lights to fiery serpents. The copious material adduced by Dr. Alia Lushnikova (philologist, RAS Institute of
Linguistics) can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Originally, the author believes, the Great Bear (Ursa Major) constellation was named after some horned ungulate animal (elk, deer, cow); it was renamed with the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy as the cult of predators took form. Dr. Lushnikova cites cogent arguments to validate her point. But why the ursa, the she-bear, and not ursus, the he - bear? And then the bear is an omnivorous beast, not a hundred percent predator. The bear cult was born a very long time ago, not only among the Cro-Magnon tribes, but as far back as the Neanderthal man. The celestial symbols could be borrowed by some tribes from other ones and reflect the images of sacred animals, totems and objects of hunting... In a nutshell, a desire to substantiate one single idea while neglecting other interpretations has little to do with impartial scientific inquiry.
Unfortunately the desire to assert "the only correct" hypothesis or theory occurs rather often. Dominant theories have come to stay in many spheres of knowledge (cosmology, global tectonics, elementary-particle physics, space and time, evolution of micro- and macrosystems). Scientists prefer to examine such theories in much detail but ignore the possibility of alternative versions.
However, as Dr. Nina Nevskaya (philosopher, St. Petersburg) has stressed in her article, Russia has known other traditions ever since Emperor Peter the Great. Way back in the 18th century members of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences were supposed to increase knowledge, and they were to disseminate it as well. The government has done a good deal toward accomplishing both objectives with the utmost effect. Dr. Nevskaya quotes Acad. Leonard Euler (18th - century Russian savant): "Having no brilliant opportunity like that, I would be compelled to turn to other matters in which I could be but a putterer." Does not the same danger lurk for scientists of our age?
The hegemony of separate theories supported by works of bona-fide "putterers" might herald an advent of another age of scientific revolutions in natural science. It could begin with essentially new ideas or with a revival of old ones still in oblivion. This is why the history of science attains to special significance in helping us to gain an insight into the laws of its development and uncover the precious treasures of the thinkers of ages past.
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