One of Tolstoy’s least known works [Tolstoy, 1886], published during the ascetic spiritual phase that characterized his late life, criticizes science (as well as art) as irrelevant because it gives no answer to the eponymous question “What shall we do then?”. While Tolstoy’s intentions were right-minded, his criticism remains misplaced: science may not give ready-made direct answers to moral questions, but certainly provides highly relevant information to help answer them.
Tolstoy’s superficial description of the scientist’s work as consisting of “counting invisible bugs and stars” caught Poincaré’s attention. In a talk given in 1906, later published in his trilogy of essays on epistemology [Poincaré, 1914], Poincaré discusses how science goes well beyond merely “counting bugs” or, beyond metaphor, amassing facts. As he says in a famous quotation in another part of the trilogy:
Science is built up with facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.
This story explains the origin of this blog’s name, but you may still be wondering why a blog mainly about science (and enthusiastic about it!) is named after a misconception.
To address this objection, we have to think about the derivative meaning of “bug” as “defect” or “error” — particularly widespread in computer science to describe software faults, but whose introduction predates even Tolstoy’s observations. Under this new meaning, Tolstoy’s sentence is not so infelicitous. On the contrary, finding and counting errors are efforts fundamental to the progress of science. At another level, there are entire fields devoted to counting bugs: software verification, one of my main research interests and a recurring topic in this blog, is concerned with finding, characterizing, removing, and establishing the absence of software bugs.
I’m sure Poincaré would approve of this view. After all he developed one of his most important breakthroughs — chaotic behavior of nonlinear dynamical systems — as an attempt to patch a mistake (a bug!) in his initial submission of an award-winning paper (interestingly, a reviewer helped catch the mistake, but this makes for another story [Diacu, 1996]).
The slogan “counting bugs” also vindicates the unquantifiable value of science from below, where every effort that satisfies curiosity and contributes, no matter how modestly, to improving knowledge and understanding is worthy regardless of utility or practicality.
This blog will try to follow such an inquisitive but also lightsome spirit while discussing sundry topics in science and beyond. If you’re sympathetic, I hope you will join us!
- Leo Tolstoy: What shall we do?, 1886. Available here in English.
- Henry Poincaré: Science and hypothesis. The value of science. Science and method., 1914. English edition: The value of science, edited by Stephen Jay Gould, Modern Library, 2001.
- Florin Diacu: The solution of the -body problem, The Mathematical Intelligencer, 18(3):66–70, 1996. Available here.