Roger Highfield argues that the modern scientific method, an unending dialogue between theory and experiment, is the mother of all invention ... 

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2012

All great inventions rest on understanding how things work. And the greatest of all is the über-invention that has provided the insights on which other inventions depend: the modern scientific method, the realisation that we cannot grasp the way the world works by rational thought alone. 

To gain meaningful insights into the scheme of things, logic has to be accompanied by asking probing questions of nature. To advance understanding, we need to devise rational conjectures and probe them to destruction through controlled tests, precise observations and clever analysis. The upshot is an unending dialogue between theory and experiment.

Unlike a traditional invention, the scientific method did not come into being at a particular time: its history is complex and stretches back long before 1833, when the term “scientist” was coined by the English polymath William Whewell. The method is not a concrete gadget like Gutenberg’s press, the computer or the Pill. Nor is it a brainwave like the non-geocentric universe, the Indo-Arab counting system or the theory of evolution. It is a fecund way of thinking on which the modern world rests. In relatively few generations, the rigorous application of the method has bootstrapped modern society through a non-linear accumulation of both knowledge and technology. Its impact on everyday life is ubiquitous and indisputable, even though a surprising number of people, including some senior politicians, have only a feeble grasp of its significance. 

As one example, let’s look forward a few decades to an invention which is destined to end the energy crisis, change the global economy and curb climate change at a stroke: commercial fusion power. This invention, like nearly all others, is inconceivable without the scientific method, in this case the insights that it gives into the process by which the Sun and other stars transmute matter, transforming hydrogen into helium to release astounding amounts of energy. This invention will rest on the application of a diverse range of scientific insights, whether in the creation of reactor materials that can withstand unbelievable pummelling by subatomic particles or the design of affordable superconducting magnets that can confine plasma ten times hotter than the Sun’s core. 

The scientific method has changed life, culture and everything, and set the stage for a reassessment of our place in the universe. It is the mother of all invention.

Roger Highfield is a former editor of New Scientist and science editor of the Daily Telegraph. He now works for the National Museum of Science and Industry.

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Picture credit: AKG