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What is Science?

 

LOUIS PASTEUR

 

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) was a French chemist and the father of modern bacteriology. During his life he made major contributions to chemistry, medicine, and industry. His discovery that diseases are spread by bacteria was perhaps his greatest contribution to science.

 

Louis Pasteur


Pasteur, having been abruptly addressed by a colleague, who remarked that there were many yet unexplained facts in connection with fermentation, answered by thus apostrophizing his adversaries: “What is, then, your idea of the progress of Science? Science advances one step, then another, and then draws back and meditates before taking a third. Does the impossibility of taking that last step suppress the success acquired by the two others? Would you say to an infant who hesitated before a third step, having ventured on two previous ones, ‘Thy former efforts are of no avail — thou shalt never walk’?

“You wish to upset what you are pleased to call my ‘theory,’ apparently in order to propose another. Permit me to tell you by what signs these theories are recognized: the characteristic of erroneous theories is that clinging to them it is impossible ever to foresee new facts, and one is therefore compelled to graft further hypotheses on them in order to account for those new facts; but correct theories, on the other hand, are the outcome of observed facts and are characterized by the ability of those who accept them to predict new facts which develop logically from those already known. In short, the characteristic of a correct theory is its fruitfulness.”

“Science,” he said further at the next meeting of the Academy, “ought not to concern itself in any way with the philosophical consequences of its discoveries. If through the development of my experimental studies I arrive at the demonstration that matter can organize itself of its own accord into a cell or into a living being, I would come here and proclaim it with the legitimate pride of a scientist conscious of having made a great discovery, and I would add, if provoked into doing so, “All the worse for those whose doctrines or systems do not fit in with the truth of the facts of nature.”

“It was with similar pride that I defied my opponents to contradict me when I said, ‘In the present state of science, the doctrine of spontaneous generation is a chimera.’ And I add, with similar independence, ‘So much the worse for those whose philosophical or political ideas are contradicted by my studies.’ This must not be taken to mean that, in my beliefs and in the conduct of my life, I take account only of acquired science. Even if I wish to do so, I could not, for then I should have to strip myself of a part of myself. There are two men in each of us — the scientist, he who starts with a clear field and desires to rise to the knowledge of Nature through observation, experimentation and deduction, and the man of belief, the man who mourns his dead children, and who cannot, alas, prove that he will see them again, but who believes that he will, and lives in that hope, the man who would not die like a vibrio, but feels that the spirit that is within him cannot die. The two domains are distinct, and woe to him who tries to let them trespass on each other in the always so imperfect state of human knowledge.”

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Rene Vallery-Rado, Life of Pasteur (New York: Doubleday, 1923).

THE AUTHOR

Rene Vallery-Rado

 

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