Posted by: N.S. Palmer | July 11, 2011

Old Science in New Bottles

By N.S. Palmer

“Old wine in new bottles” is a common phrase in English. It refers to the practice of taking something old, dressing it up a little, and then pretending that it’s new.

Like so many phrases and proverbs in Western civilization, this one comes from the Bible. In this case, however, it reverses Jesus’ statement from Matthew 9:17:

Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.

In our time, we get a lot of old wine in new bottles. At the grocery store, we get “New! Improved!” laundry detergents whose only change is a “new! improved!” price. In politics, we get the “unitary executive” theory, which recycles the medieval doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, and “privatization,” an updated version of the 18th-century enclosure movement. In literature, we get dumbed-down re-workings of Shakespeare, made suitable for our thuggish and illiterate popular culture.

And then there’s science. We’ve been conditioned to believe that science is always new and shiny. But contemporary scientific research often just re-states, in modern terms, truths that have been known for centuries or millennia.

The latest case of old science in new bottles is reported in the June 18, 2011 issue of Science News:

Villagers from an Amazonian group called the Mundurucu intuitively grasp abstract geometric principles despite having no formal maths education, say psychologist Veronique Izard of the Universite Paris Descartes and her colleagues …

Study co-author and Harvard University psychologist Elizabeth Spelke argues that evolution has endowed people with “core knowledge” about several domains, including physical space.”

(“Geometry Comes Naturally to the Unschooled Mind”)

None of that would be a shock to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (424 – 348 BCE). Over 2,000 years ago, he told in his dialogue “Meno” about an encounter between his teacher Socrates and an uneducated slave boy:

SOCRATES: He is Greek, and speaks Greek, does he not?

MENO: Yes, indeed; he was born in the house.

SOCRATES: Attend now to the questions which I ask him, and observe whether he learns of me or only remembers.

MENO: I will.

SOCRATES: Tell me, boy, do you know that a figure like this is a square?

BOY: I do.

SOCRATES: And you know that a square figure has these four lines equal?

BOY: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And these lines which I have drawn through the middle of the square are also equal?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: A square may be of any size?

BOY: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And if one side of the figure be of two feet, and the other side be of two feet, how much will the whole be? Let me explain: if in one direction the space was of two feet, and in the other direction of one foot, the whole would be of two feet taken once?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: But since this side is also of two feet, there are twice two feet?

BOY: There are.

SOCRATES: Then the square is of twice two feet?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: And how many are twice two feet? count and tell me.

BOY: Four, Socrates.

SOCRATES: And might there not be another square twice as large as this, and having like this the lines equal?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: And of how many feet will that be?

BOY: Of eight feet.

SOCRATES: And now try and tell me the length of the line which forms the side of that double square: this is two feet—what will that be?

BOY: Clearly, Socrates, it will be double.

SOCRATES: Do you observe, Meno, that I am not teaching the boy anything, but only asking him questions; and now he fancies that he knows how long a line is necessary in order to produce a figure of eight square feet; does he not?

Copyright 2011 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.

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