What Your Life Has In Common With A Spinning Top And The History Of Science
1. Your life and a spinning top
I suppose most of us can recall spinning a top (or, alternatively, a cog out of an old wind-up clock) as a child. It spun, and after a while it came to a stop. Let us call such an episode a 'life'. Each such life follows the same basic pattern. The pattern is one of the things studied in the area of science known as Theory of Dynamic Systems. A spinning top is a dynamic system, and so is a living thing; and although they are two quite differnt sorts of dynamic system they both behave according to the pattern. The pattern has three main stages:
In Stage 1, the system is characterised by a high level of energy, together with behaviour which is highly unstable, but decreasingly so. (The top spins rapidly and hops about on the floor.) Call this the childhood of the system. If the system is not disrupted during this stage, there follows a brief transition to Stage 2.
In Stage 2, which usually lasts longest, the system is characterised by a relatively moderate energy level, together with relatively stable behaviour. (The top sits in one place and spins nicely for a good long while.) Call this the adulthood of the system. If the system survives this stage without disruption, there is a transition to stage 3.
In Stage 3, the system is characterised by a relatively low and declining level of energy, together with a return to unstable behaviour, and increasingly so. (The top begins to wobble.) Call this the old age of the system. Stage 3 ends in the collapse or 'death' of the system. (The top falls over and stops spinning.)
2. The history of science
In 1962, a physicist and historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, published a book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn described the history of a science (say, physics) as a succession of 'paradigms'. Such a paradigm is a set of concepts and theories upon which a whole era of scientific theorising and research is based. These paradigms have a life of three main stages.
Kuhn called one of the stages 'scientific revolution'. This was not his first stage, but for our purposes here we will place it first. It is characterised by the highly energetic pursuit of a new set of ideas and theories - a new paradigm. This stage is very unstable for the science, because not all scientists immediately adopt the new ideas and there is a period of conflict until the majority agree on accepting them. We might call 'scientific revolution' the childhood of the paradigm.
Kuhn called the stage after this 'normal science'. This is the longest lasting stage and it is characterised by the steady, plodding mopping up of the consequences of the basic set of ideas. It is an attempt to explain all of the phenomena relevant to the science by reference to the one basic set of ideas. We might call this the adulthood of the paradigm.
Kuhn called the next stage 'crisis science'. This stage is characterised by declining enthusiasm for the paradigm as it becomes increasingly apparent that there are many relevant phenomena that cannot be explained with reference to it ('anomalies'). The science becomes increasingly unstable as more and more attempts are made to come up with a new and more adequate set of basic ideas. We might call this the old age of the paradigm. It culminates in the collapse of the paradigm as a completely new paradigm emerges - a new scientific revolution.
So it appears that our lives, spinning tops, and scientific paradigms, if not disrupted, have a childhood, an adulthood, and an old age. Here's a thought: could it be that the universe as a whole follows this pattern?