Oscillations in Science

The principle of observing oscillations in nature and correlating them with other events relevant to society is the foundation of many branches of nature sciences. Astronomy is the logical extension of the work done by the neolithic pioneers, where progress in the understanding of the inner workings of the universe often means the discovery of some form of oscillation, be it in orbital relations between celestial bodies, or in their very nature, for example in pulsars (for an overview of the development of astronomy, see Hoskin 1999; North 2008). The growing list of known exoplanets is mainly owed to the understanding that specific oscillations in the movement of stars (which oscillate themselves) can only be explained by the existence of planets accompanying them (Irwin 2008). The knowledge of these oscillations is built up from many individual observations, mostly mediated through some form of technological apparatus whose complexity far exceeds the man-made landmarks used to establish knowledge about solstices, but whose very basic underlying principle remains very similar. I will come back to the aspect of technological mediation. The understanding of oscillations in astronomy has had an enormous impact on the self-image of society, considering the changes to the role of earth and its inhabitants that had to be accepted after the heliocentric world model could not seriously be challenged any more. Another, more direct case is the observation of oscillations in weather and the climate in general, resulting in weather forecasts and notions of climatic oscillations, such as the El Niño / Southern Oscillation (see Sarachik & Cane 2010).

Observations of oscillations in nature do not only extend to the stars and the climate, but are also common in biology and zoology, for example. Populations of species are not stable, for example, but often oscillate between local and sometimes global minima and maxima (see Turchin 2003 and Cappuccino & Price 1995). These oscillations are part of a densely connected network of population numbers and densities influencing each other in complex relationships commonly known and oversimplified as the food chain. Adding to the complexity, populations of species are also highly dependent on oscillations in climate conditions. If we look at individual oscillations, however, it becomes clear that these stated interdependencies, and thereby the perceived complexity of these systems, are second-order observations made against the background of concrete epistemic interests, be it towards an individual species, or a specific habitat. The constructions of complex systems in nature live in science, not in nature, and despite their sophistication they are necessarily vast reductions of the complexity encountered in these systems. Nevertheless, the discoveries of oscillating interdependencies in various fields of nature sciences has led to powerful knowledge of phenomena that have great influences on society. Paradoxically, this knowledge has brought with it an understanding that the more we know about nature, the more will we develop technology to exploit it, in many cases eventually destroying the very phenomena our scientific interest was so fascinated by.

Another early example of observed oscillations is the knowledge of harmonic relations in the swinging motions of a string stretched on some solid and ideally resonating body (see Montagu 2007: 125). The construction of lyres and other musical instruments based on this principle was also a form of second-order science, as it combined observations of technical processes, such as the motion of a string on a resonating body, with observations of cognitive assessments, namely harmonic relations. The creation of specific string lengths on musical instruments, and later on fret boards on banjos and guitars, exemplifies how both of these observations had to be observed in the context of each other. Organs, and later on synthesizers as well as all other tonal instruments are founded on very similar cases of second-order observations, combining oscillations observed in nature and replicated in technology with observations of cognitive perception to create new forms of instruments for musical expression (Montagu 2007: 188).

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