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Tuesday, November 07, 2006
Inventions & Discoveries -vvw

I attended a talk about intellectual property on Monday, which got me thinking about the difference between an invention and a discovery. I have always thought that they are well-defined and distinct categories but after some thought, I'm not so sure.

For example, most people would refer to scientific theories as discoveries rather than inventions. Newton discovered gravitation, Einstein discovered the theory of relativity, etc. It would be silly to claim that Newton invented gravitation as that would imply that gravity did not exist before Newton.

However, we know that Newton's model of gravitation was not perfectly accurate. Scientific theories can be considered inventions because what Newton essentially did was invent a model to describe Nature. Of course, Einstein later invented a better theory that could describe gravity more accurately.

In his General Theory of Relativity, Einstein used mathematical tools like Riemann's metric tensors to describe gravity and the universe. If we consider General Relativity a discovery, then we are assuming that metric tensors are somehow woven into the fabric of the universe. Yet few would argue that tensors are a mathematical invention rather than a discovery.

Scientific theories often become obsolete when better theories replace them. This process of improvement seems to be more a characteristic of invention than discovery. One does not discover something and then discover the same thing again better next time.

It's ironic that while the purpose of science is to discover the nature of Nature, the best we can do is invent a good description. Just as in Archaeology, one can discover a relic or a tomb but one can only infer and invent a suitable history.

-- permalink --
Yiheng made
9:03 PM


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