Friday, 12 June 2009

Antediluvian

Antediluvian - before the Deluge.

Only 100 years ago high quality scientific data was scarce. Very scarce. This scarcity was a major barrier to scientific progress and many of the leading research scientists of the day spent enormous efforts to design and construct physical instruments that were capable of providing high quality, reproducible data. For example, consider the life work of Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894), a German quantitative scientist who made important contributions to theoretical physics and founded the field of psycho-physics. Helmholtz had broad interests in theoretical and practical science and Einstein famously said of him, “I admire ever more the original, free thinker Helmholtz” (Einstein 1899).

In the course of his wide ranging career Helmholtz invented a number of key measurement devices. In 1851 he revolutionised study of the human eye with the invention of the opthalmascope and in the 1860’s he invented the Helmholtz resonator to generate pure tones for his studies on human tone sensation and perception. Helmholtz was not a mere measurer of things and he also contributed new and deep thinking to the philosophy of science. 

However, his famous dictum that “all science is measurement”, was based on a lifetimes commitment to the creation of and use of high quality experimental data. The reason that Helmholtz spent so much effort on creating physical devices for generating data for his studies was that they simply did not exist. Compared with today, that era of science could be described as a data desert. Each and every data point had a real value to a practising scientist because they knew exactly how much effort had been expended in obtaining it.

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