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Alien Scientist: Alien Science Paradigms

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: December 2007, Topic: Alien Scientist, Science

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn proposed that science advances via a series of scientific 'revolutions' marking shifts between different 'paradigms.' A paradigm is a kind of model or frame of reference for interpreting the workings of the world. A classic example of a paradigm shift is the post-Copernican shift from a geocentric worldview to a heliocentric one: the idea that the Earth goes round the Sun, rather than the Sun going round the Earth. In a sense, Copernicus' success was possible through adopting an extraterrestrial perspective, that transcended the traditional Earthbound worldview.

A paradigm shift, like a political revolution, can be seem as a decisive overthrow of the established order. But in another sense, a paradigm shift may not be as dramatic as a political revolution, in that it may have limited impact on people's everyday experience of the world. After all, the post-Copernican Sun still 'rises' and 'sets' as before. While the paradigm may shift, previously existing knowledge is not necessarily superseded: old data on planetary motions may be as valid as before, but it is now interpreted differently, to fit the new frame of reference.

It is perhaps natural that extraterrestrial perspectives might stimulate or confirm changes in paradigm. The Apollo astronauts' visit to the Moon was a clear demonstration of the potency of an extraterresterial perspective. Seen from the Moon, the vision of the Earth hanging in the sky made it seem very much like a planet, as well as offering a new perspective on 'Earthshine' and the novel experience of 'Earthrise'. The Earth became for once just another object in space, rather than the terrestrial antithesis of space. Yet perhaps paradoxically, at the same time as being confirmed as just another planet, the precious specialness of the Earth seemed simultaneously to be reaffirmed.

Although paradigm shifts are associated with significant changes in 'worldview', we could apply the concept to shifts in perspective of any scale of significance. The recognition of Earth's landmasses as not being fixed, but moving and malleable, may not be as Earth-shattering as the realisation that our World is not the centre of the Universe, but still represents a significant change of paradigm within which to intepret all manner of geographical, geological and palaeobiological data.

And any number of smaller changes in perspective could be seen as mini paradigm shifts in their own right: associating heat with the motion of particles, or colour with frequency, could be interpreted as real shifts in the interpretation of the physical world. The idea of a paradigm shift is itself arguably a paradigm shift: while Kuhn's book did not rewrite the facts of scientific history, it reinterpreted what happened from a new perspective.

One of the consequences of Kuhn's idea is that science does not advance in a steady, cumulative manner. Because it periodically discards old theories - part of the fabric from which science is constructed - then science is not best seen as an ever-advancing edifice, with each new building-block heroically surmounting what went before. Rather, there is a periodic renewal and replacement of material.

And so scientific knowledge is somehow contingent, and not something with completely 'rock solid' foundations. Or perhaps it does have 'rock solid' foundations, but these, like the 'rock solid' ground itself, are made up of restless particles in intangible probabilistic quantum states, forming a rocky foundation overlain on even less solid material below; while the whole ensemble swings through space, destination unknown.

Despite the unknowns we are surrounded by, science has equipped us well for interpreting our world and the universe beyond. Extraterrestrial physics and chemistry are pretty much a seamless extension of physics and chemistry on Earth. And while alien biology is likely to be exotic, we would expect it to share at least some general features in common with terrestrial biology - or at least, known chemistry and physics.

As for alien science, we would expect any alien scientists to have interesting alternative perspectives on the universe, even while viewing the same territory as ourselves. This, of course, presumes that aliens have such a thing called science in the first place. Science itself is a paradigm; and for all we know there are alien intelligences who have yet to develop a scientific paradigm, or who have passed on to some other way of dealing with the universe.

Whatever paradigm the aliens have, this would affect how they will interpret us: as mysterious celestial beings, as fellow citizens of the universe, or just some alien planetary biota.

<< Mind the Gap: November 2007 | Master Index | Mind the Gap: December 2007 >>

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