Kuhn and Popper on Flight

The New Theory of Flight and Theory of Kutta-Zhukovsky-Prandtl (KZP)  offers material for a study in the philosophy of science in the spirit of Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper.

Thomas Kuhn: Scientific Revolution

Thomas Kuhn makes the distinction between “normal science” as “puzzle solving” within a given theory or “paradigm”,  and “paradigm shift” or “revolution” driven by a sufficient number of contradictions within normal science. There is no cumulative progression towards “better theories” but rather accidental diversions from confrontation with real or apparent contradictions.

Key examples are the shift from Aristotelian mechanics to Newtonian mechanics in the 17th century, and the shift from Newtonian mechanics to relativity and quantum mechanics in the early 20th century.

Newtonian mechanics offered a more efficient and useful mathematical description as a definite step forward.

Relativity theory came out as a resolution of an apparent contradiction as a less efficient and useful mathematical theory of “curved space-time” and thus effectively was not a step forward.

Quantum mechanics resolved certain contradictions on atomic scales of Newtonian mechanics, but introduced a new concept of multi-dimensional wave function requiring non-physical statistics, and thus was both a step forward and backward.

Karl Popper: Science as Falsifiable Theory

Karl Popper made the distinction between science as falsifiable theory (Newton’s mechanics) and pseudo-science as non-falsifiable theory (marxism and psychoanalysis). Popper would see a progression towards theories with more predictions and thus greater falsifiability.

Kuhn and Popper on Theories of Flight

What would Kuhn and Popper say on theories of flight, on the shift from Newton’s theory to KZP in 1904 and from KZP to The New Theory in 2008?

Kuhn would say that KZP came out of the contradiction of observing the Wright brothers flying while Newton’s theory showed this was mathematically impossible.

Popper would say that KZP is non-falsifiable in the sense that both lift and drag are supposed to emanate from a vanishingly thin boundary layer which cannot be resolved and analyzed and understood. Any falsification through an analysis of a boundary layer of finite thickness could be refuted by saying that the boundary was not thin enough for KZP to apply.

Popper would say that The New Theory is better than KZP by making a large number of predictions (e.g. lift and drag for all angles of attack) which are falsifiable but all agree with observations.

Kuhn would say that The New Theory is a veritable scientific revolution since it eliminates the boundary layer dogma of Prandtl as the Father of Modern Fluid Mechanics.

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