Archive for January 11th, 2014

Science Is What Works

January 11, 2014

Science Is What Defines Our Species Best.

Science is industrial strength truth, and that works.

Science, well done, teaches wonder, and humility. We are all, or we should all be, scientists (those who are paid for that, therefore, ought to spare the public who finance them arrogance, sarcasm and appearing certain of what they ought not to be certain of). Let me wax lyrical on this theme (suggested by an essay of Matthew Francis).

Some of these skills could disappear, as artificial intelligence becomes ubiquitous: the driver of a car instinctively learn some rudiments of mechanics. Yet, when automatic cars appear, those rudiments will go away. This happened before: a Neanderthal equipped with a spear-thrower (atlatl) had to know, instinctively, quite a bit of physics about dynamics, aerodynamics, angular momentum, inertia, etc.

Astute and cynical commenters will no doubt observe that this is how dogs learn calculus… Instinctively. So what? One hopes to build “Boson Sampling” computers. They will be just something that works, just as spear throwers did. Don’t ask why: nobody knows, not anymore than Neanderthals “knew” all this physics to send a dart 100 meters away. Science is just what works.

Some revere equations, and feel they differentiate “science” from what was before. Illusion.

Equations just depict ideas. Equations can be very hard. Some we have no …idea how to handle them (Navier-Stokes, the most useful equation supposed to depict fluid flow).

It’s hard to find new ideas. However, some, once found and accepted, can be amazingly simple. The invention of Non-Euclidean geometry just amounted to admit a pre-Euclidean idea: one could make geometry on a sphere, or a saddle, not just a flat surface.

Inventing Non-Euclidean geometry was more of a philosophical change of perspective than anything else. It took 21 centuries to make it. It was not a question of equations. Actually, there are no equations in Euclidean geometry.

Similarly Einstein took Poincare’s observation that the constancy of the speed of light should be viewed as a physical law, and got the Lorentz group from it. Modulo some mathematics so trivial, Poincare’ had not bother to make them explicit, when he talked about the “Principle Of Relativity”.

Again a philosophical change of perspective.

Or Einstein (again) took Planck’s idea of quantified emission of light, and decided that was proof enough that there was such a thing as light quanta. Planck disapproved. Planck was not impressed that this outrageous idea “explained” the photoelectric effect discovered 80 years earlier. When he recommended Einstein for jobs, Planck asked the would-be employers to overlook that silly mistake of an exuberant young man (Einstein got the Nobel for that simple “lichtquanten” [light quanta] idea in 1923).

Philosophical change of perspective, again.

The discovery of Dark Matter and Dark Energy were as unexpected as that of Quantum Theory. However there is an important philosophical difference.

Planck’s quantified emission of radiation “explained” right away two well-known, yet baffling, experimental facts: the non-occurring “ultraviolet catastrophe”, and the Blackbody Radiation.

In the present situation, we are not even completely sure that Dark Matter and Dark Energy are really observed facts. The philosophical perspectives, let alone the physical ones, are vast. Breakthroughs will come, first, from simple ideas. Complicated equations will follow.

We appreciate the brutal beauty of the universe as our judge, because we evolved that way. We evolved to find those elements of reality we call the truth. Our glorious survival blossomed that way.

Science is what we do, as a species. And philosophy is our oracle. We evolved into thinking that we are. We are what we think.

Patrice Ayme