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Chinese young scientists should be proud

2006-07-23 17:21

  I want to say first how much Chinese young scientists should be proud to belong to a country which for millennia1 did contribute to culture through scientific and technological innovations.Historians are only today discovering the richness of this tradition and its specificity as compared to western tradition. I would like to present here some general remarks.

  Many philosophers and historians of science agree that the association of nature with the idea of complexity,that was very strong in Chinese tradition,developed an acute sense for observation. On the other hand,the Chinese belief in Nature's complexity has perhaps inhibited2 the formulation3 of scientific problems in schematical4,simplified terms that did allow the spectacular progress of mathematical theory for physics and chemistry in the western world.

  Notwithstanding5,the knowledge of many physical and chemical processes did develop in China in a way we begin only to appreciate.I am a convinced6 reader of the Opus Magnum7 of Joseph Needham,Science and Civilisation in China.He was dedicated enough to combine the efforts by many historians,Occident and Orient working together,in order to establish a first survey of this unknown continent: science history of the Chinese world.

  The amazing variety of natural processes recognized by Chinese scientists,and the continuous efforts displayed by them for millennia, do present a sharp contrast with the western belief in reductionism8,an approach that by its very definition tries to isolate simple systems in order to submit them more easily to an analysis formulated in mathematical terms.The reductionist approach allowed such men as Galileo and Newton to achieve stupendous9 results, and opened the way to new perspectives.But I always felt that we now have come to the end of this Royal Road10 of western science.

  For example,if we are to describe thermodynamic11 systems submitted to non equilibrium12 conditions,we have to renounce to certain implications13 of this approach.The belief in simplicity of Nature,which founded western scientific and technological optimism,was shaken by numerous findings,be it in fields such as thermodynamics or elementary particles.Taking this recent evolution into account, we may now conceive the possibility of a convergence14 among western and Chinese approaches to Nature.

  During the times of what western historiography15 calls modern and contemporary eras(1492 till now), scientific results were to be formulated in terms of scientific laws, leading to a deterministic description.In contrast, the very existence of deterministic laws had no place in Chinese thought.To think of Nature as submitted to universal,deterministic laws,seemed to many ancient Chinese scholars a contradiction in terms,as they shared the common Chinese view of natural processes as something spontaneous16,submitted only to intenal regulation,or self-organization,to use a recent term.

  In this context,Chinese scholars thought of man-nature relationship in terms of17 resonance18 or coexistence more than in terms of control or domination.This vision of Nature begins now to have some influence on the evolution of western ideas, according to which we now speak of a History of the Universe,related to processes of self-organization we recognized in Nature around us.

  In conclusion,we are now in face of a new world,where the idea of science itself is changed.In this context,let us notice that far from being an elitist19 occupation for the happy few, it is developing in strong relation with the societal demands of humanity.The two sciences which cause the most rapid expansion are molecular20 biology and information technology. Both will influence radically the life of human beings during the XXIth century.

  Science has its origin in the feeling of astonishment: as Einstein did point out after Aristotle, this astonishment is the starting point of a true involvement in science. How not to be astonished by the new world of evolution, complexity, and instability we are now discovering? This new age of science practice should comfort the new generations; we should however not neglect the risks of an accelerated evolution of technological and scientific activity. Any scientist should try to favor the transition from a confrontation policy at world scale to a peaceful one. This is one of the tasks of the future young Chinese scientists will have to face. Future is not given, it is not written anywhere, we have to prepare it.

  我首先要说,中国的科学和技术发展几千年来确实为人类文化做出了贡献,年轻的中国科学家应当为属于这个国家而感到非常自豪。只是在今天,历史学家才开始发现中国传统文化思想的丰富内容和它不同于西方传统文化的特色。我愿在此谈些看法。

  许多哲学家和科技史专家都认为,复杂的理性思维与自然界的联合(这种观念在中国传统文化中有着深刻的体现),培养了我们观察事物的敏锐洞察力。另一方面,中国这种对自然界复杂性的信念,或许已经阻碍了用程式化的简明术语表述科学问题的进程。而在西方世界,这种表述方法,使得数学理论在物理和化学中的应用取得了惊人进展。

  然而,有许多物理和化学方面的知识,也确曾在中国得到发展,令我们十分敬佩。李约瑟曾写过一部巨著《中国科学技术史》,我是该书的忠实读者。李约瑟花了很大的精力把东西方许多历史学家的研究成果组织在一起,目的是要初步探知这个未知大陆——中国科学史的概况。

  中国科学家揭示的自然进程惊人的多样性,以及他们几千年来表现的不懈努力,与西方信仰的简洁主义确实形成了鲜明的对比。西方的方法,顾名思义,就是要尽力离析出简单的系统,使它们更容易地适用于用数学语言表达的分析。这种简化方法使伽利略、牛顿取得了惊人的成果,为新的前景开辟了道路。但是,我常常感觉到,我们现在已经走到了西方科学康庄大道的尽头。

  举例来说,如果我们要描述处于非平衡状态的热力学系统,我们就必须抛弃涉及这一问题的某些做法。确信自然界的简朴性,这是西方科技观的依据,它已被某些领域(如热力学、基本粒子)的许多研究成果所动摇。考虑到这个最新进展,或许我们现在可以设想可能将西方和中国对待自然界的两种态度结合起来。

  在被西方历史编纂学称作现代纪元和当代纪元(从1492年至今)这段时间内,科学成果都被表达为科学定律,这形成了一种决定性的描述。相比之下,在中国人的思想中却没有决定性定律存在的位置。对许多古代中国学者来说,把自然界设想为服从于某些普遍的、决定性的定律,这在提法上就是矛盾的,因为他们持有的中国观点是把自然进程看作是某种自发性的事物,它们只服从于内部的调节,或者用一个新词:自我组织。

  因此,中国学者在考虑人和自然界的关系时,更多使用的是和谐或共处这样一些术语,而不是控制或支配。这种自然观,现在开始对西方观念的发展产生某些影响。据此,现在我们谈到宇宙的历史时,就要联系到我们从周围自然界中认识到的自我组织过程。

  总之,我们正面对一个新世界,在新世界中,科学自身的概念也在发生变化。在这种情况下,我们应注意到,科学远不只是少数幸运儿的优越职业,它与人类的社会需求紧密相连,不断地向前发展。发展最快并产生重大影响的两门学科是分子生物学和信息技术。二者将在21世纪极大地影响人类的生活。

  科学本身就具有让人惊奇的"血统",在亚里士多德之后,爱因斯坦确曾指出,这种惊奇就是真正投身于科学的起点。面对正在发现的演进的、复杂的和不稳定的新世界,我们怎能不感到惊奇呢?这个科学实践的新时期应当使几代新人感到欣慰。但是,我们不应该忽视科学技术加速发展带来的危险。任何一个科学家都应努力促成从世界范围的对抗政策到和平政策的转变,这是未来年轻的中国科学家将面临的一个任务。未来不是别人给予的,也没有写在任何一个地方,我们必须为此做好准备。

  注释:

  1.millennia n. millennium的复数 ,一千年 ,千年期

  2.inhibit vt. 抑 制,约束

  3.formulation n.公式化的表述

  4.schematical adj.图表的,纲要的

  5.notwithstanding conj.虽然,尽管

  6.convinced adj.确信的,信服的

  7.opus magnum [拉 ]巨著

  8.reductionism n.简化论

  9.stupendous adj.惊人的

  10.royal road 捷径,坦途

  11.thermodynamic adj.热力学的

  12.non-equilibrium adj.非平衡的

  13.implication n.涉及,牵连

  14.convergence n.会合,会聚

  15.historiography n.史学

  16.spontaneous adj.自发的

  17.in terms of 用…的字眼

  18.resonance n.共振,谐振

  19.elitist n.杰出人物

  20.molecular adj.分子的

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