Historical Illumination

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Under what circumstances can examining the past help guide future discoveries?

It’s most definitely an open question among historians whether or not a careful study of the past can help us in the future.  Some believe that the past must be appreciated and understood solely in its own terms and context and that any attempt to “derive laws of human nature” from its examination that can then be somehow applied to our current situation is bound to fail. 

Others, on the other hand, are convinced that, while rescuing specific “lessons from the past” that can be somehow harnessed in our present is a challenging and complex task, it is not necessarily impossible – certainly not in all instances. 

This debate, which can be traced right back to Thucydides – if not before – rages on.  But meanwhile, a much less recognized question is whether or not historical understanding can help us in other, rather different, spheres of knowledge, such as the Natural Sciences.  Below is University of Pennsylvania physicist Justin Khoury’s intriguing take on how an appreciation of the history of science can better help us frame the current conundrum of dark matter:

Excerpt from the video clip Dark Matter featuring Prof. Justin Khoury

Professor Khoury’s explicit invocation of history to help us better appreciate current issues in theoretical physics turns out to be hardly as rare as you might naively believe.  In the TOK compilation Thinking Like A Physicist, particle physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed describes how a thought experiment into the past can help us better understand how to make progress with contemporary challenges, while in the TOK clip New Laws? Physics Nobel Laureate Tony Leggett adopts a strikingly similar thought experiment of returning to the past to illustrate how our current picture of the laws of nature might be more restricted than we currently think.

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