“Facts change all the time.”
How is this possible? A fact is a fact is a fact. What Samuel Arbesman means is not that fundamental laws of nature will suddenly reverse and good-bye gravity, but that our understanding of the universe is imperfect and that scientific “knowledge” is constantly being revised as we develop new techniques and discover new things.
For example he tells the astonishing story that in 1912 biologists found forty-eight chromosomes in the human cell, and it was accepted as established fact. After that, some other scientists found only forty-six chromosomes, but they assumed that they had made a mistake. Finally by 1956 the new lower number was recognized, and it is so universally accepted these days that I didn’t know there had ever been any doubt about it.
From my time as a Science Liaison Librarian in a university library, I know that science is iterative — one small discovery builds on another — and unpredictable as to which ones may be useful in another discovery. As I told students, chemical scientists write 30-page papers about one chemical (which are generally unintelligible, except to other chemists), and any paper may one day have an unexpected medical or industrial purpose.
Samuel Arbesman doesn’t claim to know which facts will become obsolete and change (obviously he’d be omniscient in that case). What he does argue is that the rate of change of facts is perfectly predictable by scientific models, like the radioactive decay of atoms. You cannot predict which atom will decay, just that in a set number of years that half of them will be decayed, thus a “half life” of either atoms or facts.
Samuel Arbesman uses dozens of examples, ancient and modern from child bed fever to computer speeds to make his arguments, and includes gentle humor: “Many of us only view ‘technology’ as anything invented after we were born.” I find his basic premise about the impermanence of facts very plausible although I don’t always agree with his details.
Try The Half-Life of Facts if you are a science fan, especially if you like books about the way genuine science can be twisted to promote unscientific ends, such as Proofiness, by Charles Seife.
Check the WRL catalog for The Half-Life of Facts.