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Basic scientific research needs support from philosophy

Author  :  Shing-tung Yau     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-04-11

Modern science and technology have been changing rapidly, constantly pushing the boundaries of human cognition and activities while extensively influencing each aspect of social production and life.

For example, high-speed railways and airplanes have made it much more convenient for people to travel. Growing numbers of rockets have been launched to reveal the mysteries of the universe and man-made satellites are orbiting the earth transmitting large volumes of messages.

However, these significant achievements have not been made overnight. Behind them, there are countless people contributing their wisdom industriously. Some have made outstanding contributions in terms of hardware while others have innovated software. All of these contributions are grounded in basic science.

Basic science is the cornerstone of the sustainable advancement of science and technology. Sometimes it can find immediate applications, such as electromagnetism. For example, Thomas Edison employed it in daily life shortly after Michael Faraday and James Maxwell discovered the electromagnetic equation.

Yet sometimes we have to wait a long time before the fruits of certain basic scientific studies can be realized. Number theory, for instance, contains lots of profound ideas that used to be considered empty talk. In the past two decades, however, many cutting-edge ideas in number theory have been used in cryptology.

Therefore, scientific and technological progress is inseparable from the development of basic science. While the former can lead a country to prosperity, the latter could sustain national strength.

On the other side, the development of basic science is closely related to philosophy. Examining all issues about physical phenomena in the universe, basic science research entails a macroscopic view of the nature. Philosophical thinking can facilitate human understanding of nature and the way to live in harmony with it.

In modern times, a number of basic scientists have been thinkers whose scholarship and ideas have influenced the science community for centuries. Isaac Newton, Johann Gauss, Albert Einstein and Erwin Schr?dinger are among the leading figures. If we read their books seriously, we find that all of them have a unique philosophy. For example, when researching the theory of general relativity, Einstein was profoundly influenced by the philosopher Ernst Mach.

In fact, far-reaching scientific research requires breakthroughs in concepts. When observing a subject, each scientist’s philosophy guides their thinking, determining their research orientation.

In ancient China, especially during the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties (220-589), basic scientific research had reached a rather high level. Prominent scientists included Liu Hui (225-295), who authored the Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art, as well as Zu Chongzhi (429–500) and his father, who are renowned for their calculation of pi and the volume of a sphere.

However, influenced by traditional philosophy, Chinese people did not pay sufficient attention to “quantity,” restricting further development of these fields. Only with the help of philosophy can basic science innovate and develop continuously.

Today, there are also many successful basic scientists in China, but gurus who could create a school of their own are few and far between. To put forward a new theory, scholars must be able to create new learning and go to the heart of truth, which cannot be done without the guidance of philosophy. In other words, philosophy is essential to the comprehensive improvement of basic scientific research.


This article was translated from People's Daily. Shing-Tung Yau is director of the Yau Mathematical Sciences Center at Tsinghua University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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