You are here

The Scientific experience of Knowledge

1977

The Activity of Observation

Experimental science begins with observation. This is an obvious fact that is rooted in the psychological and even physiological nature of man.

To cite an acknowledged master: “Experimental ideas are by no means innate. They do not arise spontaneously; they must have an outer occasion or stimulant, as is the case in all physiological functions. To have our first idea of things, we must see those things; to have an idea about a natural phenomenon, we must, first of all, observe it.”[1]

But, if observation is so fundamental to science, the question arises immediately: what is the role of man in observation? It may appear at first sight that observation is essentially passive. Man has nothing to do but keep his eyes open, trying to take in every detail of the objects with which he deals. Then, all of a sudden, discovery will strike him: luminous, precise, unchangeable. This is the uncanny gift which people not directly acquainted with science frequently ascribe to the scientific mind. But such an apparently obvious interpretation is fallacious. Scientific man becomes a discoverer only by means of a very active attitude as a patient and persevering seeker.

Historical information sheds convincing light on this subject. Frequently, people think that the reason science originated in post-Renaissance times was the availability of sophisticated apparatus that made precise observation possible. But the historical evidence shows that the situation was far more complex. Fundamentally, the great breakthroughs in science took place without the help of any sophisticated instruments. Examples include Galileo's observations of the motion of falling bodies, Vesalius' studies of the structure of the human body, and Harvey's investigations of blood circulation. Not even that most exact observer, Tycho Brahe, had much more to assist him in his astronomical observations than his bare eyes supplemented by rather primitive contraptions consisting of rods and wheels. Thus, when sophisticated instruments of observation were invented, it was not the case of straight dependency of science on technology. Rather, it was a question of active minds who knew how to take advantage of new technological possibilities. A persuasive example is Galileo's use of the telescope. He was not the inventor of the instrument. Contemporary people amused themselves with that funny gadget which enlarged and distorted the images of things. But Galileo, precisely because he had a personal sense of the activity of observation, realized immediately, upon hearing of the gadget, that it was a device "of inestimable usefulness."[2] At once, he set out to develop better models of the telescope itself and obtained his famous astronomical discoveries. Clearly, scientific observation is not merely a matter of passive receptivity on the part of man; it implies a highly complex activity. We must now detail the principal aspects of such an activity.

Courageous Open-Mindedness

Mach, discussing Galileo's work on the inclined plane, remarks that he manifested " such scientific greatness " in that " he had the intellectual audacity to see, in a subject long before investigated, more than his predecessors had seen, and to trust to his own perceptions."[3] This observation offers the key to understanding the scientific mind. A courageous determination to break away from the apparently obvious in order to see better and deeper is the basic requirement of science as such. In other words, fundamentally science consists in asking questions whose answers convention makes appear self-evident. But such an enterprising attitude can only be the expression of a quite active personality. For " It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious."[4]

The essential reason scientific observation demands activity on the part of man is the psychological tendency of human nature to take appearance for truth. It seems foolish and fruitless to question the obvious. Thus the first effort the scientist has to make is that of striving to be open-minded. That is to say, scientific creativity is not primarily detection of new phenomena, but perception of familiar events in a new light. Open-mindedness as typical of the scientists means refusing to take things for granted-not in order to be skeptical, but to keep oneself fully open to the intelligibility of the things themselves. In other words, to be open-minded means to make oneself sensitive to the actual features of nature without allowing accepted views to prejudge their interpretation. Science was born when great persons arose who were able to take this exacting attitude. Science progresses through the ever-renewed adoption of such an attitude. Of course) one should not misunderstand the nature of open-mindedness. In particular, one should not equate it with the lack of information about past opinions on the subject. For an observer is ordinarily the more successful the more comprehensive is his information about his subject matter. But what is demanded is the determination not to become a prisoner of assumed knowledge while striving for authentic knowledge. "Only we must keep our freedom of mind… and must believe that in nature what is absurd, according to our theories, is not always impossible."[5]

Industrious Familiarization

A second aspect of scientific observation further clarifies the effort toward open-mindedness that characterizes science. It can be termed industrious familiarization.

Familiarization is in general the process through which a person makes himself at home with someone or something by means of direct and prolonged contact. But science is founded on such an attitude. No scientist has made any significant discoveries, however theoretical, without some sort of direct contact with the material objects of his research. A moving example in this connection is a confession by Einstein. He appears to be the very personification of the theorist. Yet he confides in his autobiography that, despite his excellent mathematical professors at the Polytechnic Institute of Zürich, he failed to get a sound mathematical education there. The reason was, as he tells us, "I worked most of the time in the physical laboratory, fascinated by the direct contact with experience.”[6] Familiarization is a slow process, and a difficult one. Frequently it comes to fill the entire life of the person who has decided to open new fields of research. For instance, Tycho Brahe - the great astronomer whose data paved the way for the work of Kepler and Newton - devoted most of the nights of the 20 years he spent at Hveen to a systematic exploration of the skies. Leeuwenhoek spent literally all the time he could spare from his business to attain his masterful expertise with the microscope.

In order to realize how man can actually attain successful scientific observation, one important aspect of the familiarization process needs to be emphasized. Scientific observation does not ordinarily come about just as a result of long and sympathetic acquaintance with a given subject matter. To this one must add industriousness. That is, the aspiring observer must sharpen his wits and engage aII his resources in the enterprise. Frequently it is even a matter of working with one's own hands, by collecting specimens or constructing instruments. Galileo, for instance, succeeded in transforming the telescope from a toy into an instrument "of inestimable usefulness" because of his industriousness. As he tells the reader in his Starry Messenger, the first report he heard about the telescope: “…caused me to apply myself wholeheartedly to inquire into the means by which I might arrive at the invention of a similar instrument…”[7]

Other great observers manifested the same active involvement. William Herschel and Christian Huygens spent countless hours grinding lenses to improve their telescopes. Leeuwenhoek, too, became an outstanding microscopist through his hard-won skill in lens grinding. In another area of science, Darwin is famous for his relentless dedication to collecting evidence. As he himself puts it: “I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully. My industry has been nearly as great as it could have been in observation and collection of facts”.[8]

The outcome of the industrious familiarization described constitutes scientific observation at its best-the ability to see ordinary things in a really new way. As Galileo, for instance, speaks of his astronomical vision of the skies:  "…that which presents itself to mere sight is as nothing in comparison with the high marvels that the ingenuity of learned men discovers in the heavens by long and accurate observation."[9] The observational apparatus, when employed, becomes a virtual extension of the body of the researcher-a companion or cooperator that requires attention and respect but, in return, provides invaluable information. Scientific observation, in short, is essentially a matter of dedicated activity. As Leeuwenhoek put it succinctly: "Through labor and diligence we can discover matters which we had thought inscrutable before."[10] The testimony of this incomparable observer is particularly appropriate. Although simply a self-taught amateur, Leeuwenhoek became such an outstanding microscopist that even experts had difficulty in checking his discoveries. The secret of his achievements? Martin Folkes, vice president of the Royal Society, commented suitably upon receiving the microscopes that Leeuwenhoek himself had bequeathed to the Society: “His own great judgment, and experience in the manner of using them [microscopes], together with the continual application he gave to that business, and the indefatigable industry… cannot but have enabled him to form better judgments of the nature of his objects, and see farther into their constitution…”.[11]

Self-Availability for Discovery

The activity demanded by scientific observation presents still one more important aspect. Scientific observation is not merely the perception of some data that other people have hitherto failed to notice. Above everything else, observation is scientific in that it contains the germinal realization of a profound, previously unsuspected intelligibility of nature. That is to say, observation acquires full scientific status when the person becomes aware that the phenomenon he is studying is but an individual case of an overall regularity hitherto undetected. A classic example is offered by the tale of Newton coming to realize the existence of universal gravitation through observation of a falling apple. But, if observation is significant especially because of the insight it leads to, it is clear that scientific observation itself requires a special kind of activity on the part of the person who pursues ii. For insight cannot be attained through mere striving. This third aspect of the activity characterizing scientific observation can be called self-availability for discovery.

The importance, as well as the difficulty, of the kind of activity we are discussing should be properly stressed. For the attitude in question involves the whole personality of the scientist, including particularly what is most hard to give: a courageously persistent effort in the search for a solution, even when results seem to completely elude the search itself. The investigator must be enthusiastic and laborious, but he must also be unconquerably steadfast and practice unbroken concentration. He must bring all his powers to bear on the object of his research, while patiently waiting for the insight to surface. This was, for instance, the opinion of Newton in his famous words to Conduitt that truth was "the offspring of silence and unbroken meditation."[12] Newton was speaking out of experience and personal practice. When asked how he had come to make his discoveries, he replied: "I keep the subject  constantly before me, and wait till the first dawning open slowly by little and little into the full and clear light."[13]

In other terms, the basic activity required of the searching scientist is that of holding himself in a state of readiness. The scientist has to do whatever possible on his part to sensitize himself to the manifestations of intelligibility presented by his object. Then, as soon as a lead appears, he has to follow it to its very end. This essential aspect of scientific research is particularly clear in the so-called chance discoveries. These are events in which a researcher, suddenly confronted with an unexpected phenomenon, rapidly succeeds in realizing a general regularity of nature as embodied in the phenomenon itself. A famous example is the discovery of X rays. Several prominent physicists had already noticed strange effects on photographic plates which had been exposed to electric discharges in vacuum tubes. William Crookes had been annoyed and had had the plates sent back to the manufacturer as defective. Goodspeed of Philadelphia had even made an X-ray photograph (February 22, 1890), but without realizing the significance of what he had done. Then, in December 1895, Röntgen‎ also happened to notice the same phenomenon. The difference was that he paid close attention to the data and investigated them for more than one month of hectic work. His conclusion: the strange spots on the plates were in no way accidental or meaningless appearances; rather, they manifested a well-defined property of matter, hitherto unheard of. Hence the very name of X – that is, "unheard-of"- rays.[14] This example shows how sense perception becomes genuinely scientific observation through the state of active readiness of the researcher.

In general, it seems even questionable to distinguish between chance discoveries and other discoveries. For in all discoveries there is not only an element attributable to chance, but also an element having to do with the purposeful activity of the researcher. The element of chance consists of the fact that, had not a given person been exposed to certain information, he would never had had sufficient evidence to make the discovery in question. But the role played by chance is never all-determinant. For even the discoveries most clearly due to chance ate the result of the preparedness of the mind. Pasteur summarized the situation in the famous dictum: "In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind." This paradoxical expression contains a profound truth. Chance offers the challenge. Only the mind that has patiently tried to gather all the clues needed for the solution is able to meet the challenge successfully and thus achieve discovery. A great neurophysiologist wrote in this connection: "The accidental discovery is a prize, going to the persevering investigator.”[15] These words are apt because scientific discovery is essentially a breakthrough into the unknown, starting from sense experience. The breakthrough comes about only as a result of the active attitude on the part of the researcher - through his unflagging persistence and indomitable perseverance. In other terms, the researcher is a dedicated seeker, and discovery his reward. But scientific observation is the persistent striving after this reward. As Konrad Lorenz, the master observer, put it movingly: “What an observer fails to notice at all on an object for the first twenty times, he will finally perceive clearly the two hundredth time.”[16]


[1] C. Bernard, An Introduction to tbe Study of Experimental Medicine, trans. H. C. Green (New York: Dover, 1957), pp. 32f.

[2] Quoted in V. Ronchi, Storia del Cannocchiale (Vatican City: Pontifical Academy Sciences, 1964), p. 789.

[3] E. Mach,The Science of Mechanics: A Critical and Historical Account of Its Development, trans. T. J. McCormack (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1960), p. 63.

[4] A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Mentor Books, 1948), p. 5.

[5] Bernard (note 1), p. 38.

[6] In P. A. Schilpp, ed., Albert Einstein, Philosopher-Scientist (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1959), p. 15.

[7] In S. Drake, ed. and trans., Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957), p. 29.

[8] In N. Barlow, ed., The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (with original omissions restored) (New York: Norton, 1969), pp. 140f.

[9] “Letter to Madame Christina," in Drake (note 7), p. 197.

[10] Quoted in A. Schierbeek, Measuring the Invisible World: The Life and Works of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1959), p. 202.

[11] Quoted in C. Dobell, A. van Leeuwenhoek and His "Little Animals" (New York: Russell and Russell, 1958), pp. 104f.

[12] Quoted in F. E. Manuel, A Portrait of Isaac Newton (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969), p. 86.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Details in O. Glasser, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen (Springfield, III.: Charles C. Thomas, 1958), especially pp. 84f.

[15] S. Ramòn y Cajal, quoted in E. H. Craigie and W. C. Gibson, The World of Ramòn y Caial with Selections from His Nonscientific Writings (Springfield, I11.: Charles C. Thomas, 1968), p. 197.

[16] Translated form K. Lorenz, Gestalwahrehmung, als Quelle wissenschaftilcher Erkenntnis (Darmstadt: Wissenschatftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1964), p.45.

E. Cantore, Scientific Man. The Humanistic Significance of Science (New York: ISH Publications, 1977), pp. 21-28.