Role and Relevance of Classification and Data

Role and Relevance of Classification and Data

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The goal of experiments in science is not to have personal experiences, but to gather information which may add to our understanding of the phenomena being studied. The results of an experiment are known as experimental data.  The data consist of a mass of facts and figures.  These must be carefully arranged and classified if we wish to obtain any useful insight or information from them.

Classification of data is the first step in many sciences. In the ancient world, Aristotle was one of the first to classify animals. Classical Hindu thinkers excelled in the art as few others did. They classified with extraordinary thoroughness plants and animals, substances, diseases, mental faculties, food, tendencies, states of consciousness, and practically everything they studied and reflected upon. 

In astronomy one begins by classifying the celestial bodies as stars and planets; the stars into single and double stars, variable and non-variable stars; the planets according to their mass and size, etc.  In botany and zoology classi­fication is extremely important and forms the basis of an entire branch of the sciences, known as taxonomy. This was initiated in a formal way by Carolus Linnaeus (Carl von LinnÈ) in the eighteenth century. Likewise, in geology, rocks and minerals are classified, in chemistry substances are classified, and so on.

Many important insights and discoveries have resulted from systematic classification of experiment data.  It is by carefully arranging and studying the observational data of Tycho Brahe, pertaining to the motion of Mars, that Kepler was able to discover his laws of planetary motion.  As Arthur Koestler described it, “The hard facts embodied in data, the scrupulousness of Tycho’s method, acted like a grindstone on Kepler’s fantasy-prone intellect.”  In the context of science, the finding by one individual may lead to a recognition by another at a different time, in a different place, and even by one of a different nationality. Thus, the German physicist Gustav Robert Kirchhoff recognized that each element had its own characteristic spectrum. The Swiss physicist J. J. Balmer was able to discover an important relationship between the spectral lines of hydrogen. This eventually led to the formulation of the theory of the hydrogen atom by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr which turned out to be one of the doorways through which physics enters the complex and fascinating world of the microcosm.

This is very unlike in the world of religion where the experiencer alone formulates in full measure his or her revelation which others may accept as such or try to interpret in their own ways. But the recognized truth belongs uniquely to the one who recognizes it.

When discussions arise between the scientific mode of knowing the world and other modes, one tends to ignore two specific tools used in the scientific grasp of the world which are not used in the other modes. One of these is mathematics. A good deal of scientific knowledge, especially of the physico-chemical and the microcosmic aspects of the physical world, could not have come about without the use of mathematics. In this respect, the truths that art and literature, religion and mysticism reveal are of a totally different nature. What we realize from this  is not which is truth and which is not, but that scientific truths are of a significantly different category.