This week in science history: The paradigm shifter dies
Physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn reframed our understanding scientific progress. Jeff Glorfeld reports.
As a budding young American scholar, Thomas Kuhn, who was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on July 18, 1922, studied physics at Harvard University, earning his first degree in 1943 and a master’s in 1946. But he found his true path in 1949, taking his PhD from Harvard in the history of science. His first book, The Copernican Revolution, from 1957, examines the development of the heliocentric theory of the solar system during the Renaissance.
Kuhn’s interests in science and history led him into philosophy and to his second book, in 1962, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy calls “one of the most cited academic books of all time”.
In the book, Kuhn formulated his concept of “paradigm shift”. The Stanford authors explain how, through his study of science history, Kuhn had come to distrust the traditional perspective that science develops “by the addition of new truths to the stock of old truths, or the increasing approximation of theories to the truth, and in the odd case, the correction of past errors ... but progress itself is guaranteed by the scientific method.”
Instead, he says science does not develop according to a set pattern, but has alternating “normal” and “revolutionary” phases. The revolutionary phases are not merely periods of accelerated progress, but differ qualitatively from normal science.
In its entry on Kuhn, the Encyclopaedia Britannica explains his concept: “Scientific research and thought are defined by ‘paradigms’, or conceptual world-views, that consist of formal theories, classic experiments, and trusted methods.
“Scientists typically accept a prevailing paradigm and try to extend its scope by refining theories, explaining puzzling data, and establishing more precise measures of standards and phenomena. Eventually, however, their efforts may generate insoluble theoretical problems or experimental anomalies that expose a paradigm’s inadequacies or contradict it altogether.
“This accumulation of difficulties triggers a crisis that can only be resolved by an intellectual revolution that replaces an old paradigm with a new one. The overthrow of Ptolemaic cosmology by Copernican heliocentrism, and the displacement of Newtonian mechanics by quantum physics and general relativity, are both examples of major paradigm shifts.”
The idea transformed scientific debate and modelling. To honour its influence, and that of its creator, the American Chemical Society each presents the “Thomas Kuhn Paradigm Shift Award” to a researcher who promulgates ideas that best challenge the status quo.
Kuhn held professorial tenure at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1979 until his retirement in 1991. He died on June 17, 1996, after a long battle with lung cancer.