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February 10, 2011 | By:  Anders Aufderhorst-Roberts
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The Importance of Translation

Richard Feynman is one of the most quoted figures in physics. Quotes like "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts" or "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics" are firmly ingrained in the minds of most physics undergraduates and proudly stated on even more people's Facebook profiles! The really frustrating thing about Feynman is that it's so difficult to disagree with him because (without being overly sycophantic) the fact is most of what he says is so insightful! But just like all scientists, finding things to disagree with go to the soul of my being. After a quick trawl through Wikiquote, I found the following:

You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird . . . I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.

So the idea is that scientifically understanding something is important, while being able to translate it really isn't relevant. It's a well-made point and one which many scientists agree with. And who, let us face it, often sees arts and humanities as beneath them. But it does betray a lack of understanding of how science got to where it was today. Go back a thousand years and European science was in the dark ages — an all time low of scientific innovation. In the meantime, science in the Middle East was booming. The secrets of the success of this period came in the eighth century with Abbasid caliph, Al-Ma'mun, who kicked off what became known as the "Translation Movement." Through gathering and translating books from across the world, the work of Indian mathematicians could be combined with the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and the astronomical observations of the Babylonians. This led to a renaissance in physics, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and many other fields, which lasted several centuries and made Baghdad the richest and largest city in the world. A second, lesser-known translation movement began in Toledo, Spain in the twelfth century, where the works of Arab science were translated into Latin, going on to inspire the forerunners of modern science such as Newton and Galileo. Take out the role of Translation Movement in the history of science, and it's difficult to imagine where we'd be.

So while, as scientists, we see the value of what we seek to study, it's also important to understand where our knowledge comes from. If I were being pedantic, I'd say that a better way of putting Feynman's quote would be to say that "knowing something comes from knowing the name of something." But let us be honest: None of us is going to be putting that on our Facebook profiles.

Image Credit: Danieliness (via Wikimedia)

Further Reading:

Al-Khalili, J. Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science. London: Allen Lane, 2010

1 Comment
February 11, 2011 | 09:16 PM
Posted By:  Ilona Miko
Great post, Anders. Language and what we "call" things is so important. We can use the same words, and use them over and over, but still be talking about very different things. Sometimes the historical perspective on a term helps, sometimes it doesn't. This happens more than we would like to admit in science! How many times have we seen people nod and agree over terms they are defining completely differently, in parallel, throughout an entire conversation"plasticity" or "metadata."

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