Science: Knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through the scientific method (principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses) (1).
What is more important in advancing discovery – the science of discovery or the discoveries themselves?
Of course, both are important. Discoveries are newsworthy and sometimes earth-shattering. They are sexy stuff. Science creates a repeatable path towards future discoveries. Science, especially its reliance on the scientific method, is decidedly unsexy. Its end point (a discovery) might be sexy, but the process, for the most part, is not.
I recently finished reading a book about decrypting an ancient language known as Linear B. While “The Riddle of the Labyrinth” is an excellent account of cracking the code that unlocked Linear B; the author, Margalit Fox, also seeks to restore credit for this achievement to a woman whose arduous and lengthy efforts created the science of discovery that made it possible to decipher this written and spoken Mycenaean language (an early variant of Greek from the Bronze Age).
Linear B was discovered on tablets at the turn of the 20th century by the English archaeologist Arthur Evans. The tablets represent the earliest known European writing from around 1450 BC, 700 years before the Greek alphabet (which before Linear B was believed to be the first European writing). If history comes into being with the written record, the Linear B tablets transformed a period that had been considered pre-history into history.
Writing systems are less common than most of us think. Spoken language can exist without them (the author notes that of the estimated 6,000 languages that are spoken today only 15% are believed to have written forms). In ancient times writing systems appear to have been even rarer than they are today. Linear B is a syllabic writing system in which the symbols stand for syllables (such as Japanese kana). There are two other types of writing systems. Logographic languages are those in which the symbol stands for a concept (such as Chinese). Alphabetic languages are those in which symbols stand for specific sounds (such as English).
Just how difficult was it to decrypt Linear B?
When attempting to read a script, a reader can find herself in one of four possible situations:
A known language in a known script such as the text you are reading right now is immediately intelligible – no deciphering is needed. However, when one unknown is introduced into the picture, everything changes, making decipherment extremely challenging. The author cites two cases which to date have not been resolved. Rongorongo, a script believed to have written a Polynesian language that is still spoken on Easter Island, fell into disuse. So even though the language is known it is not possible to associate sounds with the symbols. Etruscan, a non Indo-European language of ancient Italy, has a script that survives and can be read (it is based on the Greek alphabet). However, lacking an understanding of word breaks and grammar, the string of sounds cannot be parsed into meaning.
If just one unknown can render some decipherment impossible, two seems like a locked box of impossibility. However, by creating a science of graphics – painstakingly inventing a framework to uncover the hidden rules of Linear B’s grammar, syntax, and structure – Alice Kober made it possible to unlock the language. By rejecting ALL assumptions, she avoided the trap of circular logic that had stymied previous decoding attempts. Others made starting assumptions that led them to what turned out to be false conclusions, dead ends. Had she not died from what many assume was cancer at the age of 43, Kober might have been able to complete her life’s work.
There are many themes that lace the story Fox tells, but three stand out:
Sexism: In the 1930s and 40s when Alice Kober was conducting her research, the prevailing culture of sexism made it all too easy to diminish the accomplishments and contributions of a rather plain-looking and self-effacing middle-aged woman who had no time to be bothered with social niceties. The Alice Kober described in this book does not seem all that likable (or interested in being likable). She comes across as a brilliant obsessive who was denied a seat at the table precisely because she was a woman. At the time she was being considered for an associate professorship at the University of Pennsylvania (in the 1940s), women were not deemed viable candidates for such positions by men. What makes for painful reading, though, is to be reminded that at that time not even women thought that women should hold such positions.
Hero Worship: The competitive nature of discovery, even in a field most of us wouldn’t give a second thought – early history. When only one person will ultimately get credit for the discovery even though many others have made the “ah-ha” moment possible, knowledge hoarding is a reasonable position to take even if pooling knowledge would advance the discovery. A corollary to this theme is the cultural obsession (which seems to span many cultures) with a “hero” – the person (usually a man) who ultimately solves the problem that many others have been working on for a long, long time. The credit for cracking the code of Linear B was entirely ascribed to Michael Ventris whose solution, the author makes plain, relied on at least three ground-breaking insights that came from Alice Kober but were never credited to her.
The Ends versus the Means: The relegation of methodology or science to a lower importance status compared with discovery itself. Alice Kober spent the better part of 15 years building a framework that did not presuppose anything about the language she was attempting to understand. Even though the tablets on which the language was inscribed were found on the island of Crete in the purported remains of the palace of Minos at Knossos, Kober did not assume that the language was Minoan. She did not assume that it was a remnant of Etruscan, the “lost” language of a civilization that preceded the Roman civilization. She did not assume that it was logographic (like Chinese or Japanese) even though many of the symbols made it tempting to do so. She painstakingly constructed a methodology for discovery – a science of graphics – which integrated rules and basic theories of how languages work to allow the origins of the language – its grammar, syntax, and sound – to emerge.
Kober died before she could crack the code and it isn’t certain even if she had lived that she would have been the one to decipher Linear B. However, the fact that a drab and discounted woman pursued the drab and discounted side of discovery – the science side –has consigned her to the ranks of unsung heros. I am in awe of the tremendous intellectual and emotional conviction required to let the process work, resisting the impulse to make assumptions and trusting that the truth will out. While it is easier today to source and mine data than it was for Kober, who had to do it all by hand using an intricate paper-based system, it is no easier to tease meaning out of data. Someone still has to construct a framework that makes meaning out of masses of information. And someone has to be fearless enough to look at the results without blinders to grasp its implications. Someone has to be willing to pursue the unsexy, but necessary, task of inventing a science.
(1) Source: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/science?show=0&t=1396526463