The first ever Polish Science Day is celebrated this year. The new national day is celebrated on 19 February (the anniversary of Nicolaus Copernicus’s birthday) and was established as a form of recognition of the achievements of Polish scientists. As we can read in the justification, the following factors deserve particular attention: scholars’ pursuit of truth and transfer of knowledge to subsequent generations, as well as fundamental role of science in the development of civilisation.
We have asked Prof. Andrzej Noras, Vice-Rector for Research at the University of Silesia in Katowice, to share his thoughts on this occasion.
Professor, we have received great news. Polish Science Day was added to the list of national days, which are usually established with a view to commemorating historical events. This time we focus our attention on the achievements of Polish scientists. Let us begin by considering the name of the new national day. We talk a lot nowadays about the significance of internationalisation of research results. We emphasize the importance of the so-called visibility and mobility of employees at Polish universities. We invite researchers who represent global research centres. So how should we understand the term Polish science?
I guess that you are referring to the currently effective Law on Higher Education and Science. So far our attention has focused mainly on educating younger generations. We were loaded with teaching duties, whereas the growing number of students somehow became the determinant of the quality of our work. Science was, in a way, further down our priority list. The new law has put emphasis on the research activities. Some say that this happens at the expense of education. I don’t think so. Education and scientific activity are two pillars on which every university should be founded. To maintain the proper balance will be a challenge. So, if I were to summarise the above-mentioned act in one sentence, I’d say that there is no good teaching without outstanding scientific research. Such attitude requires mobility, exchange of experiences and openness to the world.
However, Polish Science Day sounds better than, for example, Internationalised Science Day…
Polish science… Some malicious observers have already commented on the patron of the new feast, Nicolaus Copernicus. Was he Polish? His origin seems to be difficult to determine, if we take into account the modern categories of national affinity…
However, let us go back to our scientists. One of the essential elements of practising science these days is the mobility of academic staff and wealth of contacts at the international level. There was no freedom of movement between the European and world countries some twenty-five or thirty years ago. A physicist studying thin layers could not just invite another physicist from behind the Iron Curtain. This is the reason why the so-called Polish science is where it is right now. Fortunately, we are making up for the lost time. Our scientists, doctoral students and students participate in foreign conferences, complete internships in scientific centres at every continent, and ultimately become members of international research, editorial, expert and other teams.
They affiliate this aspect of their activity to the University of Silesia in Katowice and, in this sense, become Polish scientists, regardless of which country they come from… Another interesting issue is the justification of the newly established national day. Polish Science Day is intended to be a form of appreciation of those who aim to find out the truth. I’m in the right place. Let me ask an expert and enthusiast of philosophy what it means. Could you explain it to us, Professor?
Let us imagine that reality is like a cake. Representatives of different scientific disciplines cut out a piece of cake and consume it in a way that they find appropriate. In other words, they watch reality through this piece of cake. We feel the need to develop a general reflection. German philosophers at the turn of the 19th and 20th century attempted to provide such a response and they called this “science of everything” philosophy. This doesn’t change the fact that each, even very narrow specialisation strives to describe the structure of the whole reality, with the aim to capture the truth.
It seems that we have already been close to do it a couple of times…
Albert A. Michelson, American physicist and Nobel Prize winner who, interestingly, was born in Strzelin, in the area of today’s Cuiavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship, made a beautiful statement at the end of the 19th century.
The scholar wrote in 1894 that “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote (…) our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” The beginning of the following century showed how far from the truth that statement was.
What appeals to me more are the words by Max Scheler who wrote this beautiful thought referring to the 20th century philosophical anthropology: never before had human beings known so much about themselves, and yet they had never known how much they did not know.
Science is an infinite process. Apparently, as wrote Paul Natorp, this is the eternal fieri – becoming.
Didactics, which also appears in the comment to the newly established national day, is also of great value here. Transferring knowledge to subsequent generations is one of the elements of this ‘becoming’.
Our meeting is in the university space. Contact with young people is of key importance. I greatly appreciate questions asked by my students. Some of the issues that I myself would ignore suddenly turn out to be extremely interesting for them.
Moreover, let us imagine the situation when a scholar meets their students and fellow scholars and says: don’t follow the path that I have taken. How innovative this could be! I am under the impression that today’s grant-based way of funding science promotes the activities that must bring positive results. We assume that we will achieve research success and obtain the desired results. To me, however, more appealing is the vision of science as walking towards the streets that have already been labelled as dead-end. Had Nicolaus Copernicus not allowed for a different vision of the world than the one that had existed at the time, he would never have stopped the Sun and moved the Earth. Back then, it was him against the entire world, basically. After all these years we still keep saying: the Sun rises.
What should we say, then?
It is my impression that the Sun rises. The truth is that the Earth sets itself in relation to the Sun so that my impression seems to be real. This shows the fundamental thing: the difference between the tangible and scientific image of the world.
Let us finally discuss the third argument for establishing a new national day, that is, the fundamental importance of science for the development of civilisation… These are big words.
I’m afraid of such words (laughs). Nicolai Hartmann, a German philosopher that I am keen on, had an interesting concept for describing reality. He thought that idea should be something that goes beyond any beliefs. He criticised all -isms for being limited points of view. So when we talk about creating a civilisation, let us remember about the pieces of cake, views from the perspective of particular scientific disciplines, which are outstanding, but fragmented and often strictly specialised. The foundation of science, which is of key importance for the development of civilisation, is philosophy.
Thank you for the interview.