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An early example of airplane technology.

At the same time, however, the development of the airplane proceeded through a much different sort of process. Dyson suggests that, in the 1920s and '30s, the various small companies inventing airplanes created 100,000 different designs. Certain designs failed and test pilots were killed, but there were no devastating catastrophes in the vein of the R101. A kind of Darwinian competition between these planes narrowed the pool to the 100 airplane varieties that ultimately formed the basis of modern aviation.

To Dyson, this cutthroat, evolutionary process of technological development is the reason for today's safe and efficient airplane travel. Airship designs, on the other hand, were not afforded the same opportunity to fail. Britain instigated its Imperial Airship Programme before the capabilities and limitations of airships were understood. It took a large-scale disaster to convince the politicians that perhaps airships weren't the ideal way to unite its empire. Germany continued the development of its dirigibles until the Hindenburg, which was even larger than the R101, crashed spectacularly over New Jersey and killed 36 people in 1937.

"The characteristic feature of an ideologically driven technology is that it is not allowed to fail," Dyson writes. Yet failure is an important part of scientific progress. Albert Einstein once said, "anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new." And anyone who recalls the scientific method from high school chemistry or physics should recall that, for an experiment to be scientific, its hypothesis must be ruled out or altered if the results of that experiment prove its predictions wrong.

In fact, according to Thomas S. Kuhn's THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS, one of the driving forces behind scientific change is an "apparently arbitrary element, compounded of personal and historical accident." He mentions, among other examples, how Wilhelm Roentgen accidentally discovered x-rays while working with a cathode ray.

Kuhn's book suggests that science does not progress through a steady accumulation of knowledge. Rather, science is composed of extended phases of "normal science" which are periodically disrupted by violent intellectual revolutions -- paradigm shifts -- that alter the course of scientific evolution. He devotes an entire chapter to how an anomaly in normal scientific enterprise leads to the revolutions that inspire the most tumultuous scientific change and discovery.

This 1920 photograph by Lewis Hine celebrates America's post-industrial values.

More than a few have taken issue with Kuhn's interpretation. In IMAGINED WORLDS, Dyson says that STRUCTURE misled a generation into believing that all scientific revolutions are concept-driven. He writes that tool-driven revolutions, such as the advent of the computer in the 1960s, are much more common. Elsewhere, Kuhn has been criticized for his use of the word "paradigm." But, perhaps most of all, scientists have condemned the implication that science itself evolves along similar lines as Darwin's process of natural selection -- an assertion that has allowed theorists in other fields to question the validity of scientific output.

Steven Weinberg, a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist and former colleague of Kuhn, writes that, "Kuhn did not deny that there is progress in science, but he denied that it is progress toward anything." Weinberg concludes that this is "wormwood to scientists, like myself, who think the task of science is to bring us closer and closer to objective truth."

Whether or not science will eventually deliver a unified understanding of the universe is a debate I'll leave to the Kuhns and Weinbergs. Yet the very existence of a dispute over the objective truth of science reveals an uncertainty with how much stock we've come to place on the subject. Look at the hoopla that resulted in 1999 from the very thought of a Millennium Bug in our computers. As we continue to mechanize and build upon our technological empire, the philosophers and sociologists fascinated by STRUCTURE probably experience many of the same feelings as a tourist looking at the Tower in Pisa: wonder at the intricate beauty of what they see; skepticism about going inside and climbing to the top.

-- John Uhl

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