Century of Endeavour

Cd 2.2: Philosophy of Science

(c) Roy Johnston 1999

(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

June 6 1970

This week I take the opportunity of reviewing an important book just published by Heinemann: 'The Development and Organisation of Scientific Knowledge' by Harold Himsworth. This book is in the tradition of J D Bernal's 'Social Function of Science' and also his 'Science in History'; it constitutes an important contribution to the 'science of science', ie the understanding of the workings of science as an evolutionary social process itself worthy of scientific study.

Professor Himsworth formerly held the chair of medecine in London University and is now secretary of the Medical Research Council in Britain. His research experience therefore derives primarily from the medical field; from this he has more or less empirically derived some general principles.

Possibly one of the most illuminating of the principles is illustrated by an analogy to which he repeatedly returns in the course of the argument. He wants to get rid of the 'tree of knowledge' image, with its eternal branching and subdividing into smaller and smaller specialist areas.

He would replace it by an image of a 'sphere of ignorance', with various provinces of specialised human activity delineated on the surface. From each of these specialist provinces science burrows in towards the centre of the sphere. The burrows, initially tree-like, gradually intermingle and coalesce as the dark interior is investigated. This extra dimension of inter-relationship between fields of knowledge, originally conceived as distinct, becomes stronger the more knowledge is developed(1).

This sums up very succinctly the philosophical position which I have been trying to convey in this column.

Similar concepts are to be found in the writings of Frederick Engels and Teilhard de Chardin.

Professor Himsworth challenges the partitioning of science into basic, applied, development etc; he sees a continuum, with a 'mission-oriented' end, heavily dependent on the outside world for its inputs, and a 'fundamental' or 'unspecialised' end where progress depends on outputs generated by the research itself. But '....not even the most unspecialised subject can afford......to dispense with the intellectual stimulation it derives (from)...the specialised periphery of knowledge...'

He also challenges the 'hierarchy' implicit in the 'fundamental, applied, development' classification; not only does this way of thinking imply in some sense declining value or status, but also a one-way flow of illumination from a single fundamental source. He brings up many historical arguments to show that on the contrary status is irrelevant and that two-way flow, interaction, dynamic interplay are sources of progress.

He goes on to trace the history of the development of State support for science in Britain, particularly in the period of the first world war. He follows in detail the work of Haldane, Addison and Morant in laying down the administrative principles governing scientific research, the key idea being to interpose a Research Council berween the State department and the research workers, in order to shield the latter from the type of day-to-day pressures met with in the implementation of the findings.

(It may be that the very success of this 'Haldane Principle' has been the cause of British weakness in the application of research findings: perhaps the quasi-academic environment provided in the Government research institutes is sometimes too cosy? While this may be true, the other extreme, of having research directly under the State department concerned, is a good recipe for discouraging medium-to-long-term scientific work and concentrating on 'firefighting'. A proposal along these lines is contained in the Devlin Report(2); it was strenuously opposed by Dr Tom Walsh in the Kane Lecture on May 18 last(3).)

This book summarises the British experience; it should be read by everyone interested in the problem of the organisation of science....

September 9 1970

I have received a book published by the Garnstone Press, one of a series of monographs developing the ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: 'Energy in Evolution', by John O'Manique, a physicist turned philosophyer on the staff of St Patrick's College, Ottawa. It is now over three months since I received it, and I regret that I have only now got around to reviewing it, possibly because I have not felt at ease with some of the concepts developed by the author in this rather subtle area spanning physics, philosophy and theology.

I felt that the author was labouring under the burden of trying to give precision to some terms introduced by Teilhard, such as 'tangential' and 'radial' energy. Teilhard was in this domain working outside his own field, which was palaeontology, and he may be forgiven if some of the terms he introduced did not tally with the current usage.

The words chosen by Teilhard to stand for energy in the mechanical sense and energy in the thermodynamic sense (ie energy due to order or arrangement) are slightly off-putting to someone with a background in physics, as they suggest a 'vector' energy in three dimensions, and conjure up the shades of the old 19th century controversy as to whether energy or momentum was the true measure of motion. (This problem turned out to be resolved within relativity theory, where energy is the fourth component of an energy-momentum tensor...)

But in physics the uncomfortable question of time-reversal keeps cropping up. All systems at the level with which the physicist tends to concern himself 'do not know' whether time is going backwards or forwards. In order to get some leverage on this problem one has to examine the question of order and complexity. The physicist is, after a fashion, able to put an arrowhead on the time-line in thermodynamic systems, but the arrow points away from initial order towards final disorder. This is a relatively simple-minded approximation which holds at an unsophisticated level of organisation of matter. In biological evolution, the time-arrow points towards increasing complexity of organisation.

These are the types of question examined in Father O'Manique's momograph....

Interesting also to the student of Marxism who is familiar with the scientific essays of Engels and Schorlemmer in the 19th century, and Bernal and Needham in the 20th, is the idea of 'thresholds' in the development of complexity, at which small increases in complexity result in the emergence of radical new types of activity. Engels would have delighted in Teilhard's basically materialist grasp of the forms of the Hegelian dialectic.

The apparently independent discovery by Teilhard de Chardin of what amounts to a dialectical approach to the philosophy of science is currently a fruitful basis for dialogue between Marxist and Christian philosophers. The 'posthumous rehabilitation' of Teilhard to the status of a respectable figure within the Church is a further welcome symptom of the emergence of the Church as a body which recognises and welcomes change. The metaphysical approach to the world (boxing things in) is giving away on all fronts to the dialectical (studying things in their interaction and evolution). Teilhards doctrine of 'thresholds', if generalised into political and social systems, has profoundly revolutionary implications.

January 10 1973

It gives me no pleasure to review 'Science at the Crossroads' by Herbert Dingle.... It is, however, necessary to warn people that if they buy it, they must be prepared for an excercise in psychology rather than physics.

Suppose I were to try to prove that the earth is flat and then get this accepted by the scientific community: the catalogue of rebuffs would provide the basis for a book like Dingle's.

The trouble is that Dingle, in his prime, was a scientist of standing. How is the general public to know that they are dealing with a man who in his decline has lost touch with reality?

Professor Dingle has attempted to get the lay general public on his side in a controversy with the 'scientific establishment'. He appeals to common sense and logical argument, and writes cogently. The trouble is that whatever understanding he once had has got lost and he has become obsessed with an apparent paradox which he alleges leads to a contradiction, thereby refuting the general theory of relativity.

I have watched this controversy develop since it started. I read the original exchanges between Dingle and McCrae in 'Nature' when they were published in 1962. I concluded at the time that Dingle hadn't a leg to stand on; he was dependent on the concept of 'absolute time' which has no meaning in relativity theory, but without which Dingle's argument breaks down. I discussed it with Professor J L Synge in the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies shortly afterwards and satisfied myself that no-one took Dingle seriously. For a time they answered his letters with courtesy and published their rejoinders, but then people got irked and impatient, as one would with a persistent flat-earther.

Synge retained his good humour to the end; as late as 1967 he wrote to Dingle suggesting that he was engaging in a monumental leg-pull, and saluting his sense of humour. I quote Synge, as quoted by Dingle: 'Printers have had good employment. My humiliation at having been taken in is swallowed up in my admiration at the way you have put the thing across...'

My own position is one of admiration for the tolerance exhibited by the people to whom Dingle refers as the 'elder statesmen', who have patiently engaged in public controversy with him over the years, apparently not realising that they were dealing with someone who had become obsessed. This position is not based on any conservative adulation of elder statesmen, but on having personally been involved in experiments, involving measurements of mass, length and time, which depended so sharply on the reality of relativistic mass-increase and time-dilatation, as predicted by relativity theory, that they would have been inconceivable without it. If the engineers who had built the apparatus had left out from their calculations all relativistic terms, the apparatus just would not have worked. Dingle dismisses this kind of argument by asserting that the Maxwell-Lorentz electromagnetic theory, which requires Einstein terms to correct the mass of the electron at high velocity, is itaelf suspect. The roots go right back; it becomes a kind of witch-hunt.

If Dingle were to suggest a replacement for a theoretical structure which, on the whole, has served us well, maybe he should be taken seriously. He does not, however, rise to this challenge; it would be a big job. He is content to ramain with gadfly-status.

The origin of the controversy was in the asymmetric aging question: Dingle refused to accept this on philosophical grounds, without apparently understanding how fundamentally necessary it is in general relativity.

Once you accept general relativity, there is no problem in accepting asymmetric aging; indeed, it would be an unusual coincidence if two separate four-dimensional trajectories joining two distinct events in space-time had equal measures for their time-like components. The twin who goes away in a rocket and then comes back is distinguishable from his sibling by the fact that he has undergone different accelerations.

The argument for accepting general relativity.....is that it removes an ad-hoc assumption from the Newtonian theory: the value of the power-law in gravitation.. Newton used the 'inverse square' because it fitted the data; with Einstein the inverse square law is predicted by geometrical arguments based on postulates. The 'square' is as strongly-based as in Pythagoras' Theorem. Thus the Einstein theory is more powerful than the Newtonian; the number of degrees of freedom is reduced, and the argument passes to a new level altogether: second-order effects like the perihelion of Mercury. There is, of course, room for argument about the scale and nature of the second-order effects.

I look forward to the results of some current experimentation on asymmetric aging which I understand are going on, with very accurate clocks in satellites. The verification of this particular prediction of Einstein's by direct experimentation is becoming technically possible. I doubt if Dingle will believe it if it is positive. He will construct an ingenious escape-route. On the other hand, if the result is negative, then Dingle will have the last laugh, and experimentalists and theoreticians will indeed have to look again at the fundamentals(4).

June 27 1973

....I want to try to evoke something of the thinking of Herman Kahn, who was one of the 'star performers' at the Irish Management Institute conference at Killarney on May 3-5 of this year.....

It is increasingly recognised that implicit in basic scientific research is an ethical problem: if something new and powerful is discovered, how will its use interact with society? Who will control it? What will it be used for, and in whose interests? This problem has been with the physicists acutely since Hiroshima.

A few physicists have reacted by becoming political and attempting to develop a sense of social responsibility. Some have dropped out of pure physics and developed interdisciplinary interests. But the vast majority were content to ride the bandwagon of 'big physics' for as long as governemts were prepared to finance it in the implicit hope that a reserve of military expertise would thereby be retained.

I get the impression that many of the aging passengers on this bandwagon are beginning to wish that they had dropped out. There has been a fall-off in recruitment to physics, and a swing towards biology, which now enjoys bandwagon status. But the same ethical crisis is going to strike, and the vastly more numerous biologists are going to have to face squarely the social implications of their work, and begin to understand the ethical questions associated with allowing the market to control the applications.

Herman Kahn is a refreshing, infuriating and thought-provoking element in this situation. His role is that of populariser of the idea of the importance of long-term problems in the environment of the top managements of the large US corporations.

He directs his attention here, rather than to governments(5), for two main reasons: firstly, the democratic election cycle...sets a basic limit on government long-term thinking, and secondly, the large corporations, who finance conservative (and sometimes pseudo-radical) political parties, are the real bosses and are able to take a longer view, possibly up to the horizon of the retirements of their current top managements.

In attempting this task, he has produced some scenarios for the year 2000 which he hopes will act as aids to the survival of the more far-sighted corporation managements. These he has sketched out in an interim document....

The central theme of Kahn's contribution is a critique of what he calls the neo-Malthusian position of the Club of Rome. This position, which is increasingly that of educated people in the developed countries.....he summarises in the left-hand column below, counterposed to the right-hand column which represents his own position.

At the start of his contribution, Kahn polled the IMI audience as to which position they took. The vast majority voted for the right-hand column; Kahn congratulated them on being good, square, complacent, bourgeois, business-oriented people, just like himself, unlike the increasingly intellectual US middle-class who are indulging in crises of conscience, soul-searching and other un-capitalist activities.

..Kahn's message, the right-hand column, exudes complacency and suggests to us that we may contentedly play golf and sail our boats. This is what people want to hear, the kind of reassurance that the business community is prepared to buy from Kahn. Unfortunately for Kahn and his corporation the left-hand column is more rooted in reality.

Kahn admits that this is the case, but argues, with complete cynicism, that the implication is that your good, productive, growth-worshipping bourgeois are in fact war-criminals, knowing that his audience won't buy the idea. Thus, by a completely specious argument, in a few hundred words, the Club of Rome is demolished to the satisfaction of the Philistines.

In conclusion: I am not advocating the gospel-acceptance of the left-hand column. Indeed, there is a major factor left out: the role of the socially responsible scientist who discovers that he or she has an audience among large numbers of ordinary people, so that ideas can assume weight of numbers. The role of such people may be likened to that of the tiny mouse-like mammals which lurked in the undergrowth while the dinosaurs debated their future in the swamps of the Carboniferous, dimly aware of the energy crisis thrust upon them by the cooling climate(6).

Kahn is a protagonist in the debate of the dinosaurs. He will in the end become irrelevant, because his attitude to the people is one of contempt ('Buy off the poor').

Nevertheless, Kahn should be studied, especially in the form of the 'Year 2000 Ideology' when it comes out. It is important to understand the crisis among the dinosaurs, if only to keep out from under their heavy feet. The IMI has done a service by opening this window for us.

The following anecdote illustrates Kahn's way of thinking. Discussing strip-mining, he proposes to devote some of the profits to landscaping the aftermath. This of course is good. He goes on to develop the idea: why not regard it as sculpture, to be viewed from 30,000 feet, and employ Picasso (or equivalent) to mastermind the job? Brilliant. Given that strip-mining is necessary, saving miners' lives and keeping down the cost of coal, lets complete the benefit by making an aesthetic artefact.. But he goes on to spoil the case: he insists that the artist be left-wing, so as to buy off the opposition. By this piece of 'overkill' he shows his hand: his obsession is the need to use the wealth of capital to corrupt the people into long-term acceptance of the rule of capital. His 'Year 2000' is a gilded cage.

CLUB OF ROME                     KAHN
1.We have a fairly good idea of  No-one knows what the earth holds or
what this world can provide for  can produce. An 'expanding bowl' is a
mankind; a 'fixed pie' is a      good metaphor.
good metaphor.

2.Man is rapidly depleting the   If managed modestly well, resources
earth's food, energy and min-    will probably be available in plenty
eral resources. Key resources    for everybody for the forseeable
will run out next century.       future.

3.Exponential population and     The earth can easily support populat-
production growth are acceler-   ions many times larger than today's. 
ing the exhaustion of resources  Population growth is slowing down...

4.New discoveries of resources   New resources and technology...can be
will delay the crisis, but not   used..to upgrade the quality of life.
for long

5...investment..to extract mar-  New technology.....is necessary to 
ginal resources will increase    help clean up pollution.....
pollution....to lethal levels.

6...A worldwide class war is     ...world-wide abolition of absolute
or crisis is imminent...         poverty...

7...rich nations should halt     ...foolish to imagine that the rich
growth and share current wealth  will voluntarily share.....nonsense
with the poor...                 to believe that the poor...will 

8...conflicting interests        ..the level of management required is
will make conflict management    not remarkably high. Price mechanisms
impossible...centralised world-  can deal with most issues....
wide decision-making is imperat

9...the 21st century will see    ....a post-industrial society 
the greatest catastrophe since   in which the once-eternal economic
the Black Death....              problems will have been solved...

July 18 1973

This week the Galway mathematicians are playing host to an international summer school organised by the Royal Irish Academy on 'Group Theory and Computation'. There are over 60 mathematicians participating, including many from the US, Britain and the Continent.

It is difficult to explain to a lay readership what group theory is about. The younger generation, nurtured on 'sets' at school, will no doubt take to it more easily. Group theory deals with the manipulation of abstract entities according to pre-defined rules. The manipulation of symbols standing for numbers according to commutative and associative laws (a*b=b*a; (a*b)*c=a*(b*c) etc) give you the 'algebra' you learned at school.

There are many possible algebras, according as you change the rules. One of the first breaches of conformity took place when Hamilton(7) dropped the commutative law for multiplication and developed an algebra around four unit-operators labelled 1,i,j,k connected by relations such as i*j = -j*i = 1; i*i = -1 etc. He is reputed to have carved these in the stone parapet of one of the bridges over the Royal Canal, on his way to an Academy meeting from Dunsink Observatory....

Hamilton's quaternions (as he called them) now form part of the raw material of group theory, a sort of historic foundation-stone...

It is interesting to observe the trend into applications of this once very pure and abstract field. The theme of this conference would have been unheard of ten, or even five, years ago. What we are observing in Galway are the fruits of the advances in technology, namely, computational methods working at electronic speeds applied to working out the consequences of the group-theoreticians assumptions about the abstract entities that they consider. This is analogous to the physicists' use of radar technology to build equipment to do experiments with high-energy particles.

In the case of high-energy physics, the 'spin-off' comes back into technology via the development of systems engineering, superconductor technology etc. How will the spin-off get back into technology from the group-theory frontier?

I suggest that the exposure of the type of analytical mind which likes to probe these abstract structures to the problems of computer-programming is already leading to the development of the latter from the craft level to the level of a powerful abstract algebra(8). People familiar with the more advanced programming languages will confirm that they possess a manipulative power that is rarely if ever used to the full in the typical application.

The tragedy is that the most interesting work in this field is unpublishable because in out present pathologically competitive society it is commercially too valuable. So let no pragmatic engineer scoff at the work which is going on in Galway this week. The people who are involved, or their pupils, will be indispensible if ever the full potential of the computer for handling structured information is to be realised.

July 3 1974

Sometimes it is useful to stand back from the detail and to attempt some quasi-philosophical generalisations about the interactions between science and technology, and between the latter and social, ecomomic, political and cultural life.

It is necessary to begin by defining boundaries and meanings of words. The word 'science' for example connotes a procedure for the exploration of an unknown system, and uncovering the laws which govern its dynamic behaviour, in such a way as to enable to be predicted its response to a given change in the environment in which it is embedded.

This procedure may or may not involve 'planning an experiment' (ie introducing controlled changes into the environment); thus for example it is not open to astrophysicists to meddle with the galactic magnetic field in order to see how it affects the rate of development of the spiral arms of the galaxy, nor is it open to archaeologists to tamper with the past. Despite this, it is possible for scientists in both these disciplines to draw conclusions based on evidence, thanks to the existence of widely varying environments, such as to enable many (unplanned) experimental situations to be compared.

The first question any scientist must ask is 'what is the system which I am trying to understand, what are its component parts, and how is the boundary between the system and the environment defined for the purposes of my investigation?'

Up to quite recently biological science was dominated by the classification problem. Only in recent decades has there commenced any quantitative attempt to understand the dynamics of the interactions between species; studies of ecological systems using computer models is now becoming fashionable. Molecular biologists are unravelling the 'genetic code' whereby the information necessary to produce an individual member of a species is stored and transmitted via the nucleus of a single cell. The laws governing the development of a single cell into a complete organism, with all its specialised parts, are gradually revealing themselves, again with the aid of quantitative methods involving the use of the computer.

Thus there are recognisable stages in the development of all sciences: initially classification, definition of systems and sub-systems lending themselves to study in relative isolation, analysis of the interactions of the elements of the system to determine the laws, followed by synthesis of the elements of the system (on the basis of an understanding of the laws) into something qualitatively new. This last stage represents the transition between science and scientific technology. Once a scientist understands a hitherto unknown system well enough to 'build a new device', new technology can be said to have emerged.

Technology, however, can exist in its own right, without science. The technology of producing steel has been known for about three millennia, as a result of empirical observations by generations of smiths, passed on as a craft mystery. Scientific metallurgy is, relatively speaking, in its infancy, although it is now beginning to be possible to predict the properties of an alloy given its composition and method of preparation, in some cases where the fundamentals are tolerably well understood.

The technology of steam power was mastered long before the nature of heat was understood, and its quantitative relationship with mechanical work determined.

One of the earliest 'scientific technologies' to be achieved by the steps outlined above was that of electricity. The discovery of the principle of electromagnetic induction enabled a dynamo to be built, so that mechanical energy could be converted into electricity in a controlled manner. This took place in the period 1830-40.

An example of a traditional craft technology becoming scientific in the full modern sense is that of the brewing industry, which by the 1880s was beginning to employ professional chemists. The basis for this had been laid by the classical work of Pasteur on wine fermentation some decades previously.

The boundary between science and technology is manned by engineers. It is useful to destinguish an area known as 'engineering science' which concerns itself with pushing forward the boundaries of technology, making useful new products and processes. These may come infrom 'pure science' or they may be developed within 'engineering science' itself. I have repeatedly drawn attention to this boundary as constituting a problem, in that there is insufficient movement of people across it, from science into engineering and vice-versa.

There is a further area of technology, manned by engineers, of which the main concern is to produce at minimal cost, taking advantage of such innovations as are available.

Looking at the 'science-society' interface, there is a boundary which, I feel, has little valid reason for existing, namely, that between 'science' and the other branches of human knowledge commonly studied in the universities. This boundary exists administratively; one can't get a grant from the National Science Council for a research project in the social sciences(9). Yet all the elements of the scientific method are applicable, in principle, right across the board. Classification of systems into elements, quantification of the interconnecting laws etc is becoming increasingly fashionable in economics, sociology, history, linguistics and elsewhere. Yet there is a mental block which seems to prevent full recognition of these disciplines as 'scientific' in the proper sense, despite the use of the word in the titles of university departments (social science, legal science etc). This block, I think, consists in an unconscious rejection of the implication that full understanding of a system implies the conscious direction of effort towards change.

Thus a 'legal science' department ought to be concerned not only with what law was and is, but also by what forces it was generated, and how these relate to political, social and economic forces at work, possibly in a quantitative manner(10). This is an on-going process, and legal science departments ought to be concerned with predicting the development of the legal system under various social, political and economic developmental assumptions. This immediately raises the question whether students ought not to be engaged actively in various social reformist activities...

Perhaps the lack of conscious scientific dedication in these potentially scientific areas....indicates....that in the current conservative political environment it is not regarded as legitimate to adopt a fully scientific approach to problems, for fear of the implied dynamics of change....

July 24 1974

Rather more than a year ago the Literary Editor passed me on a book for review with a title that meant nothing to me, by a man called Birdwhistell. It looked highly technical and had to do with the communication of meaning by means other than words. I looked around the university departments of psychology, sociology, anthropology etc but could find no-one interested....

Thanks however to the current issue of 'Management' (the July/August) the significance of Birdwhistell's work has suddenly become clear to me. There is an article by Roger Coldwell, a Welsh architect, entitled 'Paralinguistics', which shows the importance of behaviour patterns other than linguistic when attempting to communicate across a cultural gap. Eye-movements, facial expressions, hand-movements and relative positions at table all have meaning.

This branch of the behavioural sciences is highly relevant to the architect, who has to consider furniture lay-outs in relation to the group behaviour of the people using the room.

The occupancy of space by people (eg in an interview) is a strategic decision which affects the subsequent tactical features of the communication. Cultural differences between peoples of different nationalities display themselves in their seating preferences in a restaurant.....

'Management' has done us a service by reminding us of the complexity of the problem of negotiating across a cultural gap. Perhaps this will stimulate our exporters to begin to tackle the first hurdle, that of language itself? One of the first steps is to get our people to distinguish themselves from the monoglot Anglo-Saxons to whom the continentals speak English with amused condescension. One has to have lived on the Continent to appreciate what a figure of fun the monoglot English speaker is to the natives. Irish people on the Continent who speak Irish among themselves, and also speak the language of the country they are in, are treated with much greater respect.

Roger Coldwell's article, and the references in it, are directed at finishing the education of people who have reached a fair degree of sophistication in verbal communication across a cultural gap, but lack an understanding of the nuances.

Paralinguistics also has relevance within a monoglot area then there are cultural gaps to be crossed, such as an English Principal Officer in the Scottish or Welsh Civil Service. Whichever side of the cultural gap understands best the principles of non-verbal communication will have a higher probability of coming out victorious in the in-fighting.

July 1 1975

....May I reply to a correspondent in Carlow who berates me for using the 'obsolete' Fahrenheit scale rather than centigrade? I try to use measures that people understand. Unidare solar panel sales material is in Fahrenheit....for the same reason....

Nor am I hooked on the scale of 10. I prefer the scale of 2; ounces and pounds are handy culinary measures for the reason that their ratio is a power fo two. I like dozens because an egg-box (4*3) is a handy size. Try designing a box for 10 eggs. There is a sinister lobby for a 10-period day; may it rot. After the French Revolution they went mad on the decimal system;; they tried a 10-day week. The Paris artisans took care of that. So I am in no hurry to throw out Fahrenheit for as long as people want it.. It has the same roots in antiquity as the degrees in a circle: the Babylonian scale of 60.

The concession to decimal currency must bear some of the blame for the current inflation. People ceased to have any feel for what prices ought to be, and so failed to use the market mechanism for resisting prices rises.

March 2 1976

The death on February 1 of Werner Heisenberg was announced on the RTE news, but failed to make the columns of this paper, drawing thereby some adverse comment from readers.

Heisenberg's contributions to physics ranked with those of Einstein and Schroedinger. His major contribution, the Uncertainty Principle, has major philosophical implications which are full of meaning for the intelligent layman.

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Relation states that the product of the uncertainties in the position and momentum of a particle is a constant (alternatively the product of the uncertainties in the energy and the time). The product is known as Planck's constant, and is very fundamentally related to other constants such as the velocity of light, the mass of the electron etc.

What this means in practice is that if you try to determine the position of an electron exactly (eg by illuminating it with some sufficiently short radiation and look at it with a suitably designed microscope(11)) you interfere with its momentum unpredictably by the very fact that you use radiation (which has momentum) to observe it.

This is a generalisable principle, equally valid, say, in business. The fact that you are attempting to gather some specific information will cause your information sources to make inferences which will, in general, cause them to alter their plans. There is no such thing as an observer in isolation from the system. The system and the observer form together what Engels would have called a dialectical unity, the elements of which interact creatively.

There are many insights to be gained by looking at business systems with the intuitions of a physicist. For example, the idea of entropy(12) as a generalised measure of disorder can be defined with precision in terms of information-theory, as developed by Shannon for the theory of communications systems. This leads on through a generalised concept of 'temperature' (the more efficient a management is at reducing entropy, the 'hotter' it is) to a fundamental theory of management costs, with the firm modelled as a thermodynamic system, processing material by lowering its entropy level (ie imposing order on it) by means of the expenditure of energy.

The Heisenberg Principle in business is illustrated by the management report: the longer you spend analysing the 'snapshots' representing historical reality, the more exact is your knowledge of how it was then, but the less relevant it is for a decision made now. Each firm will live in a world of basic uncertainty, representing a compromise between a snap judgment and detailed academic analysis. To provide detailed academic analysis with the speed of a snap judgment would be infinitely costly.

Thus somewhere in the wake of Heisenberg (and indeed Shannon) is to be found an approach to the theory and practice of management decisions and their associated information systems.

I therefore make no apology for contributing this belated commemorative reference to Heisenberg (in lieu of obituary) to the Financial Page.


1. The interior of the sphere must, of course, be infinite. This is not too difficult a concept to grasp, at least for those who are used to space-time singularities, 'black holes' and similar exotica.

2. Report on the re-organisation of the Civil Service; it has to this day remained mostly on the shelf.

3. Regrettably I have no record of this in the context of the Irish Times column. The Agricultural Institute, of which Dr Walsh was the Director up to 1979, departs somewhat from the Haldane Principle, in that it has nominees of the farmers' organisations on its board.

4. If this experiment had been negative, like the Michelson-Morley experiment which stimulated the investigations leading ultimately to relativity, I guess that we would have heard about it by now.

5. His contribution to governmental thinking in the US is also to be reckoned with, particularly in the field of post-nuclear war scenarios, the 'winnable nuclear war' and suchlike abominations. His influence does not go via scientific channels, though. When Dr Tom Jones, of the National Science Foundation, was here (see Chapter 1.1 on 27/4/76) I asked him what he thought of Kahn. He had never heard of him.

6. The sudden ending of the dinosaurs remains a matter for scientific controversy. It has been suggested that there was a major cometary impact, possibly at the present location of Iceland, which constitutes the scar. A layer rich in iridium has been identified world-wide, which separates dinosaur fossils from subsequent fauna. The analogy however remains valid, however the dinosaurs met their end.

7. For a review of the definitive Hamilton biography see Chapter 2.3 (December 1981).

8. Dr Paddy Doyle, who was Sales Mangager for IBM(Ireland) in the mid-sixties, has developed this theme in a book published in 1976 entitled 'Every Object is a System'.

9. This is no longer the case with the NBST, although the objective of the project is required to be related to science and technology.

10. One can imagine an interesting comparative study of sentencing practice for crimes against property vs crimes against the person.

11. The 'gamma-ray microscope' is an example of a class of conceptual experiment, which is not feasible with the current technology, but which nonetheless it is philosophically valid to specify. I understand that the technology has advanced to a stage where analogous experiments, showing 'uncertainty principle' effects directly, can be attempted. I have not (yet) heard that the principle has been overthrown in favour of a deterministic system involving the statistics of 'hidden variables' at a lower level, although this is the goal of some schools of thought (Bohm and others).

12. See also Chapter 1.1 on 4/2/70 and Chapter 3.6 on 23/8/73. The writer has also attempted to develop this theme in an article in 'Technology Ireland' (January 1978). He has an 'experimentalist's gut-feel' that he is on to a good theoretical approach, but has never had the time to develop it rigorously. There is also some work in open-system thermodynamics, with social analogues, by Prigogine and others in Brussels which may be relevant, but this has originated in an academic environment and lacks 'gut-feel'. In the business environment one can sometimes have an acute feel for the 'rising tide of entropy lapping about one's heels', when there is a failure of the entropy-pump / Maxwell's Demon / manager.

[To Irish Times Column Index] [Techne Associates]

Some navigational notes:

A highlighted number brings up a footnote or a reference. A highlighted word hotlinks to another document (chapter, appendix, table of contents, whatever). In general, if you click on the 'Back' button it will bring to to the point of departure in the document from which you came.

Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999