The physicist Ernst Mach didn’t believe in wonder. He thought it was the preserve of children and the ignorant, and that proper scientific discovery would reveal the true nature of all surprising phenomena. Of course reducing astonishing events to mere calculations can lead to disillusionment, but Mach thought that was a necessary part of science. Einstein disagreed. He thought the most surprising and fascinating thing about the natural world is that we can make sense of it. A scientist might start with a jumble of data, but after some patient sorting and calculating they notice a pattern: maybe a mathematical description or a link between one process and another. To discover that pattern for yourself is stunning – it was there all along, just waiting to be found.
Olaf Pedersen was a well-known Danish historian of science, but he began his working life as a science teacher. In his essay, ‘Christian Belief and the Fascination of Science’, he describes two very different lessons which demonstrate the fascination of scientific discovery. In the first, rather unsuccessful lesson he followed the textbook. He described the ‘specific gravity’ (a measure of density) of lead to his class of eleven year olds, then gave them pieces of lead to weigh and measure. Of course Pedersen’s students weren’t able to weigh and measure with absolute precision, so they failed to come up with the exact figure for the specific gravity of lead quoted in the book. They became discouraged and lost interest. Continue reading