Scientific discoveries

Examples of principles that are well-established or poorly-understood.

This section's divided into the following segments:
  1. Intuitive observations of phenomena.

  2. Systematic data gathering and analysis.

  3. Examples of key scientific discoveries.

  4. Questions that are answered by these breakthroughs.

Intuitive observations of phenomena.
Many phenomena evoke a strong sense of wonder and curiosity, even after the scientific principles that underlie them are well understood.

Throughout the history of scientific exploration, people identified phenomena that evidently had enormous effects on the world around us, and yet were so poorly understood that people barely even knew where to begin in the quest for knowledge. Each person is able to form independent, intuitive perceptions of the principles that govern everyday events.

In the absence of strict scientific understanding, we observe certain rules that seem to hold true no matter the context, and our accumulated experiences allow us to place confidence in our judgements.

However, this method of casual observation offers no proof that the patterns we observe, within our local environment, extend to circumstances beyond our range. We rely solely on anecdotal evidence to support our predictions of events, and each time we encounter a new situation, with its specific, unique combination of conditions, we have to make new observations and add them individually to an ever-growing list.

We form judgements by matching the current situation as closely as possible with those in our memory stores, and are unable to guarantee an outcome, until the prediction has either come about or failed.

Furthermore, the greater the difference between the new situation and the previous ones, the higher our level of uncertainty. Beyond a certain amount of deviation between the situations, we find it impossible to make sensible predictions at all.
Systematic data gathering and analysis.
Revolutionary breakthroughs possess transformative power because they allow a much broader understanding of the world. We can discard an unwieldy database of knowledge containing every detail of previous incidents, and retain just the scientific concepts and mathematical principles that are found to hold true for all such situations.

Not only can we determine the applicability of a principle to a given situation, we can calculate the probability of a particular outcome, and the degree to which alternative outcomes are possible.

This is an extraordinarily powerful ability. If, in the past, we always observed that a particular outcome followed a certain set of conditions, we would not have known whether the relationship held true in all locations and times. It could just have happened that all our prior observations were of that particular outcome, and others could occur, except that no one had noticed.

The establishment of scientific principles removes limitations imposed by a lack of experience- we can predict the occurrence of novel outcomes which have never been witnessed before. We can make informed guesses not only about what events will take place, but how likely they are to come about.
Examples of key scientific discoveries.
Key breakthroughs in knowledge include the understanding of:
  • Newtonian physics (regarding concepts such as force, mass, velocity).

  • Galileo’s discovery of the arrangement of planets in the solar system.

  • Maxwell’s equations (regarding concepts such as electricity and magnetism).

  • Bernoulli’s equations (regarding fluid motion).

  • Einstein’s special theory of relativity (regarding spacetime and accelerated motion).

  • Einstein’s general theory of relativity (regarding the principle of equivalence).

  • The discovery of the structure of DNA (regarding the definition of life).

  • Mendelian genetics (regarding genetic inheritance).

  • Darwin’s theory of evolution (regarding the origin of species).

  • The emergence of consciousness in the brain.

Questions that are now answered because of these breakthroughs.
Here are some questions that are addressed once the principles mentioned above are understood:
  • Where did the Earth come from? What is it made of? How did continents form?

  • Where does life come from? What is life?

  • How did separate species arise? What were they like in the past, and how will they be in the future?

  • What is a human being? Where does our species stand relative to other species?

  • Where did the various races, cultures, religions, and languages come from?

  • Where do our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and behaviours come from?
If you're not familiar with any, or all, of the answers to these questions, let me assure you that they can be and have been satisfactorily addressed and answered by scientific techniques that we currently possess. We understand the basic principles that underlie them, to greater or lesser detail, depending on the specific area.

With grounding in science, one can build up a framework of knowledge, rendering these questions unfathomable, irresolvable, and utterly mystifying, no more. (Read more about the process of scientific enquiry here.)

Before such breakthroughs, people simply did not have a general conceptual framework with which to contextualise their observations. The areas addressed by these topics were so far reaching, and their principles so fundamental, that in the absence of knowledge, these issues seemed intractable.

Without this understanding, how could one be expected to account for the appearance of the sun, moon, and planets, or gravity, or the existence of life, various species of organisms, or conscious thought?

People understandably attributed various phenomena to imaginary concepts such as spirits and gods. Once the underlying mechanisms have been worked out, our belief in supernatural causes disappears.

Even today, however, many people do not have access to certain types of information and cannot fully understand how many of these processes occur. Our perception of the world is divided along the lines of knowledge.
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