Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Man of Science

by Geoffrey Bocking MSIA [1919-1969]

(post November 3rd 1957)

The best and quickest way of training more scientists has become top priority for the Western democracies since the sudden dawning of Sputniks 1 and 2. At first sight, this seems logical enough. Scientists in Russia are a favoured class and are being trained there in vast numbers. But the fact is that launching a satellite does not call for any fundamentally new knowledge such as a scientist discovers. It calls, rather, for a spectacular concentration of effort to put to practical use facts of scientific if not common knowledge; a technical achievement of a high order but not a great discovery. On a short term basis more technicians - not more scientists - are the most urgent requirement.

In the long run, however, both would be needed. The facts that the technician makes use of are provided by the pure scientist and, in a country like Britain where limited resources prevent full exploitation, the only way to keep ahead is always to be finding out more and more facts. Of course, facts are inevitably turned up and new lines of research suggested by technical exploitation, but the kind of person who spends his life in search of what is called 'Pure Knowledge' and the one who puts it to use are basically quite different. Lingering popular prejudice for the practical man in preference to the idle dreamer probably accounts for their differences being minimised in any popular discussion about their education but,when the need for both is urgent, much time and money can be wasted if essential qualities are overlooked.

It is quite true that the scientist searching for new knowledge for its own sake must have something of the dreamer about him - but it is far from being idle. Like any other craftsman he needs a high degree of skill and tools of the finest quality. The material he works with are facts - pure and simple and as accurate as possible. The first part of his work therefore, is to get hold of these facts by research and experiment. Having got them, he treats them as if a dog with a bone had been crossed with the curator of a museum. Worrying away at them and even in the end having to put them aside for another day is one way of working; another is to potter about with them looking at all sorts of other facts to see where they can be fitted in. In each case, what he is seeking is fundamentally the-same things a way of relating them to what he knows already, of fitting another little piece to the jigsaw puzzle, or in other words - a theory. Archimedes who sprang from his bath with the cry ''Eureka"; I have it, is the well known example. And, incidentally, his theory when put to practical test proved sound although two thousand years had to elapse before checking theory by practical experiment became standard practice. Democritus, for instance, who hit on an atomic theory never dreamed of trying it out in practice or he would not have been so lamentably wrong in detail: 'acid taste, for example, is produced by atoms which are angular, winding, small, and thin' is one of his amusing speculations.

Nowadays devising practical experiment's to test new theories is an important part of the process of scientific discovery. So, too, is the continual refinement of the tools the scientist uses - tools which start by being simply ways of thinking and finish up as intellectual disciplines in which every step is as rigorously controlledas the moves in a game of chess. Abstraction and generalisation are the two - basically opposed - ways of thinking that the scientist uses to get at the marrow of his bone and to see where it fits among facts generally. To the layman, they often seem curipusly roundabout ways of getting practical information. A few facts and the scientist is likely to disappear from reality for a long time before he finally surfaces with a new theory. And the theory, however practically useful seldom seems to have even the remotest connection with his starting point to the layman. But that is precisely the point. Although much - probably most - research is undertaken to find out something quite specific, nearly all theory is arrived at by speculationj by abstraction and generalisation brought to a fine art on selected facts.

The technician wanting to know how to get to the Rose and Crown would be satisfied to be told that he should take the second on the left, the first on the right, and fork left at the church. But what would the scientist make of this ? If he were a topologist, he might reflect that in the the information he had just been given, nothing was said about distance or the bends in the road. So, he might say to himself,'provided I keep to the road, I don't have to know how far or in what direction and yet ultimately, I shall arrive at my destination'.

Now for the 'abstraction': getting from anywhere A to anywhere else B need not depend on distance and direction provided only that it is done under a certain condition (keeping to the road). Thus far all he has done is forget all the practical details and look at the problem in the abstract but now he takes a further jump away from concrete reality by 'generalisation'. By applying various rules of thought (part of his training) he is able to surmise that his problem is of the same general character as exploring a maze, tracing the pattern in a piece of clothp unravelling A tangled ball of string, and connecting up a telephone exchange. And all the solutions to these problems were put into categories and worked out in a general way by scientists 150 years ago. Now to the problem of finding his way unaided to the Rose and Crown these solutions are of not much help to the topologist. The technician might be excused for dismissing them as a waste of time in this instance; he would be right. Topology has been until very recently only an interesting theory of severely limited application in practice. But in the purely practical job of making computers work - equipment essential to get a satellite into the right orbit, for example - topology has suddenly become indispensable. The 'idle' speculation on a few facts of everyday observation transformed by the highly skilled use of the tools of 'abstraction' and 'generalisation' into a body of knowledge of the most up-to-date practical significance.

This way of treating facts is clearly quite different from that of the technician. Apart, therefore, from all the differences in training, one of the first requirements of any educational system is a means of distinguishing early enough between the speculative, abstract, generalising type of intelligence required of the scientist and the attentive, concrete, particularising kind of the technician. Both deal in facts in almost overwhelming number; both rely on persistence and intuition, and the ability to visualise; both-need each other's co-operation in solving problems. But to put them through the same curriculum would be a disastrous waste of effort.

Geoffrey Bocking was later a Senior Lecturer in Design at Hammersmith College of Art and Building and was the chairman of the National Conference on Art and Design Education held at the Roundhouse in July 1968, a significant event in the protests at the Hornsey College of Art that year,

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