The universe is not deterministic; it is probabilistic, and the future can’t be predicted with certainty.
— Stuart Firestein, “Ignorance: How It Drives Science”
When most people think of science, I suspect they imagine the nearly 500-year-long systematic pursuit of knowledge that, over 14 or so generations, has uncovered more information about the universe and everything in it than all that was known in the first 5,000 years of recorded human history. They imagine a brotherhood tied together by its golden rule, the Scientific Method, and immutable set of precepts for devising experiments that churn out the cold, hard facts. And these solid facts form the edifice of science, an unbroken record of advances and insights embodied in our modern views and unprecedented standard of living. Science, with a capital S.
That’s all very nice, but I’m afraid it’s mostly a tale woven by newspaper reports, television documentaries, and high school lesson plans. Let me tell you my somewhat different perspective. It’s not facts and rules. It’s black cats in dark rooms. As the Princeton mathematician Andrew Wiles describes it: It’s groping and probing and poking, and some bumbling and bungling, and then a switch is discovered, often by accident, and the light is lit, and everyone says, “Oh, wow, so that’s how it looks,” and then it’s off into the next dark room, looking for the next mysterious black feline. If this all sounds depressing, perhaps some bleak Beckett-like scenario of existential endlessness, it’s not. In fact, it’s somehow exhilarating.
— Stuart Firestein, “Ignorance: how it drives science”