Book Review: The Limits of Science by Peter Medawar


The Limits of Science

I can’t remember where it was that I first saw this referenced. It took a little bit of finding, as I could not find it print in any major bookstore either on the high street or online. Eventually, I managed to get my hands on a second hand book. The cover is a bit, well, utilitarian. I’ll include a photo, so you make of it what you will:

As soon as you see it, you’ll realise it’s a tiny book. The book is comprised of 3 essays and in totality it is less than 100 pages. The first is entitled “An essay on scians” where the author has used an alternative, archaic spelling of ‘science’ to make his point. It is a very general essay on the nature of science. There is some detail in there but it is only there to make a point rather than educate the reader in any particular point. It is greatly enjoyable; I would describe its style as an Englishman attempting to write like Richard Feynman. After all, where else would you find a subsection entitled ‘Science and cricket’? In a short essay he manages to cover issues of sociology, politics, history and the public perception of science.

I would recommend this to anyone considering taking an undergraduate degree in any science. It is a real gem; concise, clear, passionate and well thought-through.

The second essay has as its title a very straightforward question: “Can scientific discovery be premeditated?” This is an even shorter essay, at just 8 pages. Medawar uses 3 examples to demonstrate his argument that the answer to the question is “no.” His main target seems to be the industrialisation of science in modern academia where research is often only funded if an application of the science is foreseen. This goes very much against the spirit of science that prevailed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

His final essay is the culmination of these, where the main question posed is that of whether or not there are questions that science cannot answer. Specifically he has in mind “childlike elementary questions having to do with first and last things – questions such as “How did everything begin?” “What are we here for?” “What is the point of living?””

It would be very easy to heap praise on Medawar because his views line up roughly with my own. That is to say, he thinks there are questions that cannot be answered by scientific means though he rejects the school of positivism as put forth by AJ Ayer and the Vienna Circle, by accepting that such questions do make sense. Probably the most interesting part of the essay which I had not previously considered was his consideration of ‘The Law of Conservation of Information’ which is stated thus:

“No process of logical reasoning – no mere act of mind or computer-programmable operation – can enlarge the information content of the axioms and premises or observation statements from which it proceeds.”

He finishes the essay with a consideration of ‘The Question of the Existence of God’ – a subject that tends to divide opinions like few others. I shan’t tell you what his conclusion is on this. I would heartily recommend that you read it for yourself. You can get a second-hand copy from Amazon (as I did) for a couple of quid, as it seems to be out of print now. But it is well worth it; eloquently written, sharp, witty and not overflowing with superfluous words.

3 responses to “Book Review: The Limits of Science by Peter Medawar

  1. Thanks for posting this review. Is this the book where he discusses the role of luck in science and uses the example of someone who wins the lottery by buying a ticket vs someone who finds a winning ticket?

  2. Pingback: 2012 in books | The Alethiophile