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A History of Mathematics: From Antiquity to the Beginning of by J. F. Scott

By J. F. Scott

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Example text

But when new phenomena are being described, the circumstances under which they are said to occur may be extremely complex and must be precisely defined. There is always the possibility that the phenomenon has not been brought about by the recorded circumstances, but has been produced by an' accidental' cause that was not observed or not reported. For example, when sharp regular pulses of radio waves were first observed from certain radio sources, months of research had to be done to eliminate other possible causes of this extraordinary phenomenon, such as intermittent electrical contacts in the apparatus, or the ticking of somebody's electric clock.

Of course any instrument has its own characteristic defects, which may introduce random or systematic errors into its symbolic output; but such defects can often be reduced to negligible proportions by deliberate redesign — an option that is not available when dealing with human observers. 2). This is not merely a technological factor, for the use of instruments is inextricably woven into the research process. A powerful research tool such as a mass spectrometer is not a passive observational device like a telescope.

Indeed, every scientific specialty has an established repertoire of useful concepts and formalisms out of which new theories can normally be constructed (cf. 3). The vocabulary of scientific publications is not only notoriously esoteric: in any particular field of research, this vocabulary may actually be quite limited, as if most of the facts were being satisfactorily explained in terms of only a few standard theoretical concepts. When the existing conceptual repertoire seems inadequate, a suitable theoretical structure may often be borrowed from some other specialty or discipline.

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