That’s the opening paragraph of an introductory essay included in the 50th anniversary edition of Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (click for Alan Masons post on the book) which was first published in August 1962 by University of Chicago Press. About 1.4 million copies of the book have been sold and it was recently described by the Observer as “one of the most influential books of the 20th century”.
The introductory essay is written by the Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking, who explores how Kuhn’s ideas have changed our view of the scientific process over the past five decades – and how controversial they were when the book was first published.
Kuhn was an American physicist who was born in 1922 and died in 1996. His career took an important turn in the 1950s when he taught a course at Harvard University on the history of science. At the time, science was seen as a cumulative process in which knowledge is built up gradually. As such, it should have been possible for Kuhn to look back over the ages and conclude that the ancient Greeks understood X% of mid-20th century physics, while Newton understood Y%.
Instead, he realized that the way he understood physics was fundamentally different from how an ancient Greek philosopher understood physics. Indeed, he found it impossible to compare the science of ancient Greece with that of the mid-20th century – a property he later called “incommensurability”.