Book Review: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn

Book Review: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn

What is the process by which a new candidate for paradigm replaces its predecessor? Any new interpretation of nature, whether a discovery or a theory, emerges first in the mind of one or a few individuals. It is they who first learn to see science and the world differently, and their ability to make the transition is facilitated by two circumstances that are not common to most other members of the profession. Invariably their attention has been intensely concentrated upon the crisis-provoking problems; usually, in addition, they are men so young or so new to the crisis-ridden field that practice has committed them less deeply than most of their contemporaries to the world view and rules determined by the old paradigm.

-Excerpt from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions


I just finished reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn, which I’ve been interested in reading for a while since I saw this book in both Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates’s book club. Straight off the bat, it is not an easy read as it reads more as a scientific research paper than a traditional book you may be accustomed to reading, but it’s definitely an intriguing read that explores how scientific revolutions occur throughout history.

Thomas S. Kuhn (July 18, 1922 – June 17, 1996) was an American physicist, historian, and philosopher of science and his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was an influential publication that challenged the traditional model in which scientific progress was viewed. Kuhn showed that the history of science is not one of linear, rational progress moving toward ever more accurate and complete knowledge of an objective reality (“development-by-accumulation”). Rather, Kuhn argued for a dynamic/cyclical model in which periods of such conceptual continuity in “normal science” were interrupted by periods of revolutionary science in which the old paradigms were replaced by new ones.

Kuhn showed that the theories of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein were all self-contained and “incommensurable” with one another. There was no steady accumulation of truth in the form of objective knowledge about the physical universe. Instead each theory was a revolutionary break from the previous theory, resulting in the arbitrary replacement of one paradigm by another. Once the paradigm changed, the way science was done and applied was fundamentally different. Kuhn used the word “paradigm” to describe a constellation of facts, theories, methods, and assumptions about reality that allows researchers to isolate data, elaborate theories, and solve problems. Aristotle’s Physica, Ptolemy’s Almagest, Newton’s Principia and Lavoisier’s Chemistry are examples of scientific classics that gave rise to new paradigms. Each of these works triggered a revolution, rendering irrelevant much of what came before them. The chief characteristic of a paradigm, Kuhn argued, is that it has its own set of rules and illuminates its own set of facts. Because it is self-validating, it tends to be resistant to change.

Kuhn pointed out that as long as a paradigm is successful at explaining observed phenomena and solving problems, it remains dominant. But as new phenomena begin to contradict it, the paradigm succumbs to increasing doubt. And as anomalies multiply, it is thrown into crisis. At this stage, what is needed is the articulation of a radically new theory or insight, such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, that can explain the apparent contradictions. In this way, long periods of “normal” science are followed by brief intellectual upheavals that reorder the basic theoretical assumptions of the field. But new paradigms are never immediately accepted by the scientific community.

Kuhn also stressed that a new paradigm is almost always the work of a young person or someone new to the field. After a number of years in a certain discipline, a scientist tends to be too emotionally and habitually invested in the prevailing paradigm. Indeed, the established leaders of the older tradition may never accept the new view of reality. As Kuhn wrote, “Copernicanism made few converts for almost a century after Copernicus death. Newton’s work was not generally accepted, particularly on the Continent, for more than half a century after the Principia appeared. Priestley never accepted the oxygen theory, nor Lord Kelvin the electromagnetic theory, and so on.” Adherents to the old paradigm usually go to their graves with their faith unshaken, Kuhn wryly noted. Even when confronted with overwhelming evidence, they stubbornly stick with the wrong but familiar.


All in all, it was a difficult read that I didn’t enjoy.. But the principles and concepts in the book are definitely valuable information. I think his theory on scientific revolutions can be applied to other fields as well, such as business and technology. If we look at the disruptive “sharing economy” model that has recently perpetuated our lives in recent years with the emergence of companies such as Uber and AirBnb, we can see this paradigm shift in effect. These companies didn’t emerge and succeed because of a gradual increase in the technology during recent decades – it took the introduction of a completely new paradigm of how we can use these services to open our eyes to the scalability and power of these companies. It reminds me a lot of Peter Thiel’s concept of the 10X Rule, in which disruptive ideas have to be 10 degrees higher than their competitors in order to be truly disruptive, rather than being marginally better than other alternatives. So what paradigms are we living in at the moment, that may need to be challenged?


The Discipline of Taking Action

As I get older, it becomes increasingly easier to see the distinction between successful people in any field, and those that fell victim to the complacency of mediocrity. It comes down to taking action – it’s that simple. We all know this and we’ve all heard this many times throughout our lives. But how this plays out in our own lives is oftentimes very subtle. We all have goals and dreams we want to achieve or say we want to achieve. But the average person says they want to have/achieve certain things, and a few years pass by, and they one day realize none of these things ever came into fruition. But the successful person always takes immediate action when they say they’re going to achieve anything.

I believe for the most part it comes down to discipline. Most of the goals we set aren’t easy to achieve. As such, it’s usually very, very difficult to achieve them and requires massive action to even begin working toward reaching them. That’s why it’s easier to say shit, than to do shit. I don’t know how many people I’ve encountered that have told me things such as, “Yeah, I have this startup idea that I think could be the next Facebook” or “I’m planning to do ___” or “As soon as I have enough (insert any resource), I’m going to start this and become successful.”  That’s all great, and I honestly hope they achieve these goals. But 99% of the time, when I see these individuals a few months or years later and ask them how things are going, they have one excuse or another as to why they haven’t achieved it. And I expect this 100% of the time, unless they can back their words up with action and results.


My favorite motivational speaker, Les Brown, has a quote that I love:

“The graveyard is the richest place on earth, because it is here that you will find all the hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled, the books that were never written, the songs that were never sung, the inventions that were never shared, the cures that were never discovered, all because someone was too afraid to take that first step, keep with the problem, or determined to carry our their dream.”

On the flip side, everything you see around you from laptops to airplanes exists because someone had the courage and discipline to take action. Everything you want in life is on the opposite side of fear. Fear of taking action, fear of rejection, fear of failure, whatever. And this is the reason most people don’t achieve what they want in life – it’s because they rationalize that they’d rather stay where they are than encounter this fear. Most people are either lazy, are cowards, or both. Don’t be someone full of empty words. Speak your goals and desires into existence, but work hard and hustle in silence. Who would you respect more, the guy who says he’ll have the Lamborghini in the future, or the guy who actually drives one?

“Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.”

– Tom Goodwin

Meeting Your Must

I was watching a motivational video the other day and I came across a quote/concept during the video that caught my attention and made me re-listen to it a few times and think. There was a snippet in which motivational speaker Tony Robbins discussed the concept of “meeting your must.” What does that even mean? Basically the concept revolves around things we should do vs. things we must do. We rarely do the things we “should” do, but we ALWAYS do the things in which we “must” do.

Quotes Picture: you meet your must you rarely do what you 'should' you always do what you 'must' make success a beeeeeeping 'must'!

We should floss daily. We should exercise consistently. We should read books and proactively expand our minds. But notice how these shoulds are oftentimes things that we wouldn’t mind skipping here and there or for the vast majority, are things that aren’t done at all. But contrast this to things we must do. We must eat daily. We must sleep. We must drink when we’re thirsty. It’s to an extreme, but I think it gets the point across. For example, the mindset of “I should stop smoking” is drastically different once you make the mental commitment and believe “I must stop smoking.” Things that are a must are prioritized and are addressed with a high sense of urgency, and I believe successful people are able to place their goals in this “must” category.

Although a simple concept, it was stated in such a simple way that I’m sure many people don’t consciously think about on a consistent basis. Reaching your goals and the velocity in which you achieve them is all a priorities game. If you prioritize your goals 100%, success is almost inevitable. It reminds me of Eric Thomas’s Secrets to Success speech in which he said:

“Most of you say you want to be successful,
But you don’t want it bad,
You just kinda want it.

You don’t want it badder than you wanna party.
You don’t want it as much as you want to be cool.

Most of you don’t want success,
As much as you want to sleep!”

Are your goals really your #1 priority? If not, they’re just a should. You’re most likely thinking you “should” be wealthy and successful. It would be nice to be rich and prosperous. But is it something that deep down in your heart you know you MUST achieve? When you understand your priorities and know what you must do/accomplish, your actions will automatically align you toward the right path. When we look at those that have achieved “success” in the eyes of society, oftentimes these individuals had tunnel-vision focus and an obsession toward reaching their goals. There was no other way. In the end, I think urgency is a key word in understanding your level of ambition toward reaching your goals. What’s your level of urgency? Is it that important to you? How bad do you want it? I think we need to tackle our goals with a sense of urgency, otherwise they’re really not priorities. They’re just conveniences.