Science Is What Works

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

17 Responses to “Science Is What Works”

  1. Matthew R. Francis Says:

    Matthew R. Francis January 11, 2014 at 07:03

    What you say sounds reasonable on its face, but there are number of problems with your arguments.

    We use equations in physics because they are effective. The Navier-Stokes equation helps us describe physical phenomena successfully; it doesn’t matter whether you understand it philosophically or not. To cite the most important example of all: people still debate over the proper way to interpret quantum mechanics, but everyone uses the Schrödinger equation and the other mathematical tools because those are the way to do quantum physics. That’s not to say the interpretation isn’t important, but the equations are essential.

    Also, you get the cosmological issues backward. Dark matter and dark energy are observed phenomena (“facts” if you will, though I dislike using that term). “Dark energy” in particular is just the name we give to the observed accelerated expansion of the Universe, for which we currently don’t have a good theoretical explanation. “Dark matter” similarly is the name we give to the simplest explanation for a wide variety of astronomical observations, from the rotation of galaxies to the sound waves in the cosmic microwave background (see the detailed discussion in for more on that second point). These are observations for which we need more theory and observation, not philosophical perspectives.

    Conceptual breakthroughs happen, but they follow hard work. Newton didn’t spontaneously come up with gravity, and Einstein didn’t spontaneously think of relativity. Both of these breakthroughs came after long strenuous efforts, and were built on ideas, experiments, and observations from many others who came before them. When we figure them out, dark energy and dark matter will be no different. After all, we’ve known about dark matter since the 1930s and dark energy since 1998 (with inklings of its existence before then). If all it took was a philosophical perspective, we’d have solved it by now.

    To reiterate, physics is hard, but worth it.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dear Matthew: I did not say the Navier-Stokes equation had to be understood “philosophically”. I just alluded to the fact that, although it depicts fluid flow, the general existence and smoothness solutions of this non linear PDE have not been proven (I actually don’t believe they exist).

      Newton did not come up with the gravity law, by the way. He exploited it further.

      The French astronomer Ismaël Boulliau suggested that Kepler was wrong about the gravitational force. Kepler had declared that the gravitational force holding the planets in place decreased inversely to distance. Boulliau held instead that the force decreased as an inverse square law. He deduced this in analogy to light. Isaac Newton acknowledged Boulliau’s discovery.

      Nobody dares to suggest the equations related to Quantum Theory are not essential. To a great extent, they are all what defines the theory. QFT is all about guessing the Laplacian, aka the equation(s).

      The situation with Dark Stuff is not similar. They are not directly observed phenomena (just ask LHC people).

      The “observations” of both Dark Matter and Dark Energy are the fruits of (philosophical) pruning. The former depends, among other things, upon the hypothesis that gravity holds at galactic scales (some employed astronomers claim gravity does not work beyond the Solar System… as seems to be the case, at face value!) It’s hard to evaluate things we don’t know, such as galactic mass (the Milky Way has grown in astronomers’ minds recently) to make further guesses about something else.

      In the case of Super Novae studies, outliers explosions are removed from the sampling. I could not read a clear enough description of what was found (I read the original literature) to see if my pet theory survives.

      Boldly supposing that something is really going on (I know a Nobel was attributed), we are very far from being able to describe the thing (whether, for example it’s a Cosmological Constant or Quintessence field description).

      Physics is what we do, it did not start with Newton. Or Buridan, who discovered inertia, or Aristotle, who got that wrong.

      Physics, finding new physics is desperately hard, but so worth it, our lives depend upon it. They always have.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      What I am driving at, is that just reducing physics to equations is too reductive.


    • Paul Handover Says:

      I’m sure this is familiar to Matthew but for me this recent item on the BBC News website had me spellbound:

      Universe measured to 1% accuracy

      Astronomers have measured the distances between galaxies in the universe to an accuracy of just 1%.

      This staggeringly precise survey – across six billion light-years – is key to mapping the cosmos and determining the nature of dark energy.

      The new gold standard was set by BOSS (the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey) using the Sloan Foundation Telescope in New Mexico, US.

      It was announced at the 223rd American Astronomical Society in Washington DC.

      Continue reading the main story

      Start Quote

      “I now know the size of the universe better than the size of my house”

      Prof David Schlegel
      BOSS principal investigator
      “There are not many things in our daily lives that we know to 1% accuracy,” said Prof David Schlegel, a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the principal investigator of BOSS.

      “I now know the size of the universe better than I know the size of my house.

      But the aspect that really generated that spellbound feeling was this:

      The latest results indicate dark energy is a cosmological constant whose strength does not vary in space or time.

      They also provide an excellent estimate of the curvature of space.

      “The answer is, it’s not curved much. The universe is extraordinarily flat,” said Prof Schlegel.

      “And this has implications for whether the universe is infinite. While we can’t say with certainty, it’s likely the universe extends forever in space and will go on forever in time. Our results are consistent with an infinite universe,” he said.


      “it’s likely the universe extends forever in space and will go on forever in time.” I find that utterly beyond imagination!

      Matthew, PLEASE help me out! 😉


      • Patrice Ayme Says:

        Hi Paul! There is a whole culture of people out there who view scientists, the way priests used to be seen. This is very wrong.

        Matthew makes it clear on his site that he does not take it lightly to those who do not use proper reverence. This way he reminds me of Mr. Lack.

        I’m a mathematician, and, he, clearly is not (he thought I said something philosophical about Navier-Stokes!). All research mathematicians know the Navier-Stokes is one of the seven “Millennium” problems of the Clay Institute. There is a one million dollar prize for it.

        I don’t believe it can be always solved, because it neglects QUANTUM effects.

        What you reported there is very interesting. I vaguely saw come across, and took it tongue in cheek.

        It’s nevertheless striking to see this in print, a few weeks after my own:

        By coincidence I was writing something about Dark Matter (I have had the same theory for decades; one can say it predicted Dark Matter!)

        Here is a little help to give you. The Big Bang theory is brutal, definitive, on a limited time span, and based on naïve assumptions. In one word: Biblical. The problem you have is that it seems to conflict with:
        “it’s likely the universe extends forever in space and will go on forever in time.”

        Well, not really.
        Anyway this cat can help you more than Mr. Matthew…. Methinks.


        • Paul Handover Says:


          Thank you for your length reply.

          Yes, I understand, and share, your criticism of the Big Bang theory.

          I wasn’t in conflict, per se, with the idea of an infinite universe. It was just that I couldn’t understand, in a scientific sense, a universe that is boundless. I.e. it has no start or end.

          The reason I have such trouble in understanding is that everything material that I am aware of, from the atom to the solar system, has a start and an end.

          Therefore, if the universe has NO start or end then somewhere between the fabric of our solar system and the universe there must be a boundary where the rules of matter change.

          Not even sure if I’m making myself clear!


          • Patrice Ayme Says:

            Dear Paul: The universe we see now is about 30 billion light years across. That defies understanding. In practice, it’s infinite. I have actually argued that the very notion of infinity, in MATHEMATICS, is defined by the size of the universe itself.

            I don’t know for sure that there is one mathematician besides myself who understand what it means.


          • Paul Handover Says:

            Almost the philosophy of mathematics! Or is it the mathematics of philosophy? 😉

            Thanks Patrice.


  2. Alexi Helligar Says:

    Alexi Helligar Truth is what works.


  3. Paul Handover Says:

    Sorry about this but becoming fixated on this universe size thing!

    I see that 1 light year = 9.4605284 x 10 to the 15 meters

    Ergo, 3 light years = 28.3815852 x 10 to the 15 meters, or 28.3815852 x 10 to the 12 kilometres. (28.38 trillion kilometres)

    Thus 30 BILLION light years is:
    28.3815852 x 10 to the 21

    Have I done that correctly, Mr. Mathematician?


    • Paul Handover Says:

      Sorry should have included the measure:

      Thus 30 BILLION light years is: 28.3815852 x 10 to the 21 kilometres.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dear Paul: Look, I just called apes apes, in my latest post, so I am tired, and I’m sure you handle the math OK. I think the pictures of billions of galaxies are more telling than powers of ten, anyway.

      There is a new Hubble Deep Field, showing huge, very bright galaxies.
      Two things:
      1) it seems to show the universe evolved.
      2) seems to me like another Big Bang headache, as it’s not clear how such big things could have evolved 500 million years after the alleged BB.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      The size of the universe is an excellent thing to be fixated about. Men used to be the measure of all things, it may be wiser to prefer the universe itself to confer scale.


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