Empirical nature of Science

It must be on everyone’s mind that when humans are on the path of conquering the heavens, how come we are unable to develop a small vaccine or a drug that will save thousands of people infected with COVID-19. To understand this dichotomy in our scientific and technological pursuits, it is important to dig a bit deeper on how the science has evolved over the centuries.

The main object of the institution of Science is to unlock the mysteries of nature using the organized form of knowledge. Science in its original definition as a kind of knowledge existed in all ancient civilizations. For instance, Mesopotamians used knowledge about the properties of various natural chemicals for manufacturing pottery, glass, soap, metals and other things. During those ancient times, there was no distinction between scientists and artisans.  The difference between the two became stark when natural philosophy, the precursor of natural science, became established as a discipline of knowledge to study nature.

The Greek philosophers propounded earth, water, air and fire as four primordial elements in terms of which the complexity of the nature could be discerned. Aristotle also added the fifth element so called “aether” that made up the worlds of the outer celestial spheres. It was at the beginning of the 9th century, when practical and experimental observations were used as scientific tools to understand the physical world. This was a major turning point in the very precept of Science from being an ab initio to that of empirical study of the natural world. The Ab initio approach strives to understand the physical processes using some basic elements. Obviously, it was a wishful thinking of the ancient civilizations to reconstruct the natural world employing the five basic elements. Even in the 21st century, when we have far better understanding of the basic constituents of the matter, which are elementary particles of quarks and leptons, reconstructing the natural world with these building blocks appears to be a bridge too far.

The major advancements in Science have been achieved following the empirical route. What it means is that scientists develop scientific laws and theories purely based on practical and experimental observations. These laws and models are, obviously, tentative in nature and may alter with the availability of newer observations. Probably, the most famous laws are the Newton’s laws of motion and the law of gravity.

These laws are truly empirical and it is quite amazing to know that most of the mechanical devices in the world are based on these laws. The Newton’s law of gravity, as the legend has it that it was falling of the apple on the Newton’s head that led to the formulation of the gravitational law.  In reality, the story is not that simple and William Stukeley in the biography “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life” writes that Newton shared the apple anecdote as “After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank tea under the shade of some apple trees… he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind…. occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood”. What is interesting is that most of this path-breaking work was done when Newton was quarantined in his childhood home of Woolsthorpe, England due to the outbreak of bubonic plague and the Cambridge University, where he was studying, was closed. It was one of the greatest triumphs of the human ingenuity that most of the knowledge known at that time regarding the motion of objects, both terrestrial and celestial, developed by earlier scientists that included Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, was unified in the form of Newton’s laws.

Although, Newton’s laws are quite successful in explaining almost everything under the sun, but the question that remained unanswered was : what is origin of gravity? Newton explained how the gravity works, but not why the gravity worked the way it did. Newton acknowledged this hollowness in Science and argued that scientist’s job is to capture the observations in theoretical models, explaining the “how” and not the “why”. It took almost 250 years and the brilliance of another human being, Albert Einstein, to provide some answers on the origin of the gravitational field through his monumental work on general theory of relativity. This theory explains that gravity is caused by the curvature of space-time. Although, the theory is abstract in nature, but it solved many mysteries, for instance, anomalous orbital motion of the planet mercury that Newton’s gravitational law failed to explain. It also made some phenomenal predictions, which included bending of light by the sun’s gravity, the existence of black holes and the expanding universe. These predictions have been experimentally verified and completely revolutionized our vision of the universe.

As stated earlier, these mathematical models are based on empirical observations and capture only part of the reality. These models obviously have limitations and, for instance, general theory of relativity is applicable to macroscopic bodies like planets and the universe at large. On the other hand, to describe the microscopic world of atoms and molecules, quantum mechanical theory is employed. The underlying postulates of general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics are contradictory to each other and one of the greatest challenges to modern Science is to develop a unified theoretical framework that has two preceding theories as limiting cases.

The reason to discuss Newton’s laws, Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics was that these are probably the most popular theories in Science and are used in everyday life from manufacturing of small nails to satellites and to laser guided missiles.  What is most worrying is that we are building the whole technological empire based on laws and models that have limited applicability, and have very little insight on how it impacts the environment. Let us not forget that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were used in the refrigerators were contributing to the depletion of the ozone layer. We are thankful to the scientists who discovered the ozone hole over Antarctica and related it to the emission of CFCs and other hazardous chemicals released by human made gadgets.

Homo sapiens are probably the most selfish species on the planet earth, considering that the technology which is developed around the scientific discoveries is solely designed for the benefit and the comforts of the humans. We hardly bother what happens to the environment or to the other species on the planet with the development of newer technologies. It is believed by most of the ecologists that our planet is in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of the species due to human encroachments of the natural environment. The experts consider that this extinction is comparable to the five previous catastrophic events over the past 600 million years, during which up to 95 percent of the planet’s species disappeared.

It is argued by most of the scholars that all the species on earth have a reason to exist and it is just because of our limited knowledge of the natural world that humans find most of the species useless. They may not be directly useful to the humans, but are important to maintain the ecological balance on the planet. Actually, many experts opine that the coronavirus pandemic that the world is presently grappling with is due to human intrusions into the natural environment. The species that have become extinct with the human interventions were probably protecting us from the coronavirus pathogen.

In our technological pursuits, we should have clues on how the new technology that is being developed may impact the natural environment.  This can be accomplished by boosting research and innovations in natural sciences. Unfortunately, the investments in the basic subjects of physical and biological sciences have been dwindling over the years. The COVID-19 pandemic is a grim reminder that humans have very little knowledge of the natural world. Humans ought to seize this moment by chalking out a new course that is at peace with the nature rather than at war with each other. We should make investments to elucidate the intricacies of the incredible natural world instead of developing weapons to kill each other.

In physical and chemical sciences, at-least, there are established laws and theories that provide some reliable predictions on the nature of a system. Biological and medical sciences, on the other hand, are mostly based on trial and error methods. This is the reason that developing a vaccine for COVID-19 is so arduous as it has to pass through several stages of trial and error method. The current vaccines are developed through finding the ingredients that steadily stimulate antibody response in infected patients, and often without having a detailed knowledge of the immune mechanisms required for protection. We wish there was a model or a tool that would provide us the vaccine decomposition once the genome structure of the pathogen was revealed. What is required is a Manhattan like project that will bring together leading scientists of the world to develop cellular and molecular models of viruses and diseases. There is no vaccine or a drug for the deadly diseases like cancer because it originates at the cellular level. We need to confront the viruses and diseases at that level in order to completely eradicate them. History teaches us that human ingenuity has no limits, recalling that Manhattan project was based on the simple mathematical equation, E = mc2 that even its inventor, Albert Einstein, didn’t believe that this equation could deliver the nuclear energy.

Prof. Sheikh Javid Ahmed is presently Vice-Chancellor, Cluster University Srinagar. Opinions expressed are his personal.