Thursday, 1 February 2007

6:3 Is science like a game?

Playfulness often consists of trying out moves, making wild guesses, following intuition and hunches, leaving the logical path, taking risks, not becoming too solemn or wedded to a particular idea or strategy, innovating and experimenting. Successful science often requires a good deal of playful, exaggerated, humorous, outrageous, speculation and testing. By definition, the major advance will occur in unexpected areas and these are often reached by leaps of the mind. The overly-serious, logical, thorough, highly disciplined mind often misses the significant, strange, clue that gives a new insight.

A trained Confucian scholar or Buddhist monk may be less likely to make the break-through than an overgrown undergraduate full of fun, games and pranks. Francis Crick’s book about the discovery of DNA is significantly called What Mad Pursuit. The ideas were so far-fetched and incredible that most people would have dismissed them as a joke.

One of the great problems in the pursuit of knowledge in most societies is that it threatens too many vested interests. Probing the mysteries of nature may bring power, a threat to the rulers; it may undermine previous knowledge, a threat to priests; it will alter status positions, a threat to the elders and higher social groups. When Galileo pointed out that the earth revolved round the sun rather than the other way round, he was forced to publicly retract his statements under threat of torture.

The boundedness which we find as a central aspect of games, and which we also find essential in law, politics and the economy, is equally important for science. Very often those engaged in strange pursuits are hounded out as magicians or sorcerers. But, particularly in the less controlled areas of Protestant Europe and America, scientists could engage in their particular part-hobbies, part-games, without fear of angry mobs. They could pursue them in the hope that their skill and ingenuity in this particular 'game' against the greatest opponent (a cunning Creator who had concealed the clues in Nature) would be recognized by others for its virtuosity.

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