Four hundred years ago this year, Galileo initiated observations of celestial objects using the new technology of the refracting telescope invented in Holland in 1608. His astonishing successes can be thought of as one of the important events in the extended “birth” of the early culture of science. This important anniversary in the history of science generated huge lessons about the value of the empirical-scientific method. And it provides an opportune context to focus on the very big issue of Discovery and its connection to the cultures enabloing it. In order to engage the “very big picture” of this theme, we are seeking to develop wide-ranging interdisciplinary insights into some of the most major transitions in cultures having to do with significant innovations creating major new perspectives. These range from some world-transforming scientific discoveries (Evolution, Big Bang cosmology, and the new understanding of “entanglement” in quantum mechanics deriving from the theoretical work of John Bell and the experiment of Alain Aspect), to the ongoing efforts to discover if the Reimann conjecture in mathematics is correct, to the big story of the development of early modern science itself in the 17th century.
As a preliminary title for the 2009 symposium we propose: “The Event of Discovery. Understanding the Dynamics of Human Advancement in Science and Culture.”
Discoveries may come out in several different ways, but they always are, in some sense, surprising and satisfying. Through discovery, nature becomes more familiar not only for the increased number of details that we learn, but for a more profound awareness of its coherence and unity. In this sense, the event of a scientific discovery allows a deeper appreciation for a meaning of the natural world – not just the meaning of the physical phenomenon under study, but the meaning of reality as a whole.
Discovery is a fruitful encounter between the human rational mind and the cosmos. A discovery has the characteristics of an “event” in that it introduces a genuine novelty in our understanding of the world that can’t be reduced to any previously achieved knowledge or definition. In science, discovery comprises the development of a coherent understanding constraining all future considerations about that matter. But also in other manifestations of the human quest for ultimate reality, such as in arts, philosophy or theology, the deep nature of things sometimes appears to unfold, revealing significant new facets of reality, which then become stable elements contributing to our vision of the world.
In science, any particular discovery opens up a new angle on the orderly structure of the universe, and it highlights our ability to recognize and grasp such underlying order. Any discovery, however small, is therefore an event of universal significance, even though the protagonists involved are generally one or few individuals. The beauty and thrill characterizing the personal experience of discovery are probably born from the coincidence of such universal dimension with the specific circumstance enabling its occurrence.
While the experience of discovery has some clear characteristics, unraveling its dynamics opens to a wide range of fascinating questions. What is the dynamics of discovery? Is an element of unexpectedness always part of a discovery? How does the novelty achieved relate to the necessary careful planning and long-lasting dedication? To what extent confirming something largely expected and sought for (e.g., the Higgs particle with LHC) can be considered a discovery? Can we speak of “discovery” in a non-scientific context? What do we mean in that case?
And when do we actually speak of “discovery”? We normally do when new knowledge is introduced that unveils an aspect of reality that is perceived not only as “new”, but also as “highly significant”. What distinguishes a “discovery” from an ordinary step in the progress of science? What are the criteria by which we regard a given issue as “highly significant” compared to others? We seem to inevitably weigh the significance of a discovery insofar as it is able to shed new light on fundamental issues. A list of current “hot topics” in science, for example, would include extra-solar planets, origin of life on Earth, life in the Universe, consciousness, the origin and destiny of the Universe, the intimate structure of matter. Interestingly, the above list suggests that the focus of scientific interest is related to the main human existential questions: what are the origin, the destiny and the ultimate nature of our existence?
Discovery is a manifestation of an intrinsic correspondence between our human minds, with its capacity to create symbolic and mathematical languages, and the intimate texture of nature:
“The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is the fact that it is comprehensible”
“The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning”
The very fact that discovery is possible is a great mystery and an object of much debate. What is the significance of this fact? What is it telling us about the structure of reality and the nature of human mind? What are the implications for the issue of purpose in the universe? In science, the observation of nature leads, through discovery, to a single universal scientific language and to a shared trans-cultural knowledge. On a broader perspective, the advancement of knowledge beyond science, such as in philosophy or theology, can be seen as a motion through which human reason reaches out to a broader intelligible reality and becomes aware of it. What is the nature of this motion? What is the relationship between the discovery of a particular feature of the world (in science, philosophy or theology) and ultimate reality?
University of Milano
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
University of Parma
Department of Chemistry, Biochemistry and Biotechnology for medicine
University of Milano
T.Bellini, M.Bersanelli, G.Dieci, G.Petroni, E.Sindoni
M.Aluigi, T.Ceccoli, H.Choi, D.Pifferetti, N.Sabatini
The proceedings will be published in 2009.