Friday 12 June 2009

March of Resolution

We can arbitrarily fix the first use of measurement in scientific research, as we would now know it, to Europe in the early 1600’s. This modern paradigm of scientific research is not defined by measurement per se, the Egyptians were already doing that, it is defined by the use of measurements that have been obtained with specialised instruments constructed to extend the human capacity to resolve differences. The core concept here is resolution; the ability to detect, with some level of reliability, differences between two or more states. For example, in an optical microscope resolution is defined as the ability to distinguish and detect fine detail.

This relationship between science and resolution is not just nostalgic, there is an integral connection between the growth of science and the development of measurement resolution, as Edward Tufte describes it (Tufte 2003);

"The history of science over the centuries can be written in terms of improvements in resolution. From the beginning and all the way up to 1609, when Galileo's telescope first assisted human vision, scientific knowledge consisted of making descriptions and comparisons for events taking place at measurement scales accessible to the human eye, from about 10-3 (a tiny speck) and up to 10+7 meters (the Milky Way), some 11 orders of magnitude. Now, 400 years later, scientific descriptions and comparisons take place at scales from 10-18 and up to 10+25 meters, some 44 orders of magnitude. That is, from 1609 to 2003, scientific resolution improved an average of about 8 orders of magnitude per century (or 100 million-fold per century). Scientific resolution has increased an average 10,000,000 to 100,000,000 times per century in each of the 4 centuries since Galileo."

Although Tufte makes the argument with respect to the resolution of distances a similar argument can be made about improvements in temporal resolution (from sun dials with rough “hourly” resolution in antiquity to modern atomic clocks which can maintain an accuracy of about 10-9 seconds per day), chemical resolution or mass resolution.