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Can Science Be Trusted?

Female chemist holding a beaker with a yellow fluid

Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic philosopher and the last of Rome’s Five Good Emperors.  He reigned from 161 to 180 and is known for his Meditations, a philosophical treatise in which he wrote, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact.  Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”  Science as we know it was in its infancy during his time, but he understood the foundations of science and its ability to enlighten us as much as anyone before or since.  He said, “Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.”

photo of two scientists looking at the double helix
Science is an iterative process for discovering the truth about nature

I was reminded of that statement during a 2018 trip in which I met a man who said that science couldn’t be trusted because “what they believed a hundred years ago is not true today.”  I pointed out to him that Copernicus discovered—in 1543—that the sun is the center of our solar system.  His heliocentric model of the solar system is indisputably true and has stood the test of time.  In 1600, William Gilbert discovered the Earth’s magnetic field, which was true then and remains true now.  In 1675, Anton van Leeuwenhoek discovered microorganisms in pond water.  That was as true then as it is today, although today we know much, much more about microorganisms thanks to centuries of scientific progress.  The mercury barometer was invented in 1643, the speed of light measured in 1676, the electric battery created in 1800, anesthesia discovered in 1846, x-ray in 1895, and so on.

In point of fact, much of what scientists discovered prior to 1918 was truthful then and is truthful now.  This is not to say that science doesn’t continually refine what we think to be true or discover new truths that alter our understanding of the world in which we live.  Scientists are driven by insatiable curiosity and are motivated to discover the truth.  In science, only truth matters—real truth, discoverable truth, replicable truth.  Not myths or fantasies or propaganda, not opinions or biases or clever misdirections.  Just the truth.  Because only in the truth about what things are and how they work can you build automobiles that run for a hundred thousand miles or more, and televisions that deliver crisp, color images time after time, or computers that store billions of bytes of information and calculate far faster and more reliably than human beings, or medicines can cure illnesses, or machines that can make other machines, or build and launch spacecraft that land men on the moon.  Science is the foundation of modern life, not religion or political persuasion or the lies we tell ourselves to justify our beliefs.

Does science ever get it wrong?  Of course, because science is a never-ending process of experimentation, observation, and theory.  Scientists are constantly testing what they think they know and are open to re-discovering truth when their earlier theories or incomplete observations demonstrate that what they believed to be true wasn’t true.  But with each iteration of observation and discovery, they either confirm what is thought to be true or correct it.

 

An experiment is a question which science posts to Nature, and a measurement is the recording of Nature’s answer.

                                                                                                                                    —Max Planck

To say that science can’t be trusted because what scientists believe to be true today may not be true tomorrow is to miss the whole point of science—which is to continually improve upon our knowledge of the universe by constantly challenging what we think.  Knowledge evolves because our observations keep getting better, because our methods improve, and because we build upon both the successes and mistakes of the past.  Scottish chemist William Ramsay, who discovered the noble gases and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1904, said, “Progress is made by trial and failure; the failures are generally a hundred times more numerous than the successes; yet they are usually left unchronicled.”

Two engineers working at a machine
Technology is one demonstrable proof of the efficacy of science and the scientific method

What distinguishes science from religion is that in science truth is objective.  It is subject to verification and correction if further observations, experiments, and measurements prove that something initially thought to be true isn’t.  But in religion, truth is highly subjective—it is based on religious texts (most of which differ from each other and are often contradictory), myths and beliefs passed down through generations that cannot be verified, and the teachings of shamans or other so-called holy people (some of whom drive Mercedes and live in mansions while preaching humility and sacrifice).

This is not to say that religion has no role in people’s lives.  Albert Einstein said that “science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind.”  For many people, religion offers a solace that cannot be found in objective fact, but it is foolish to substitute religious “truth” for empirical, scientific truth, just as no amount of prayer will repair a broken automobile if what you need is a new fuel injector.

If groups of people have faith in a deity and worship that deity because it brings them comfort or salvation or a path to an afterlife, more power to them—as long as they don’t force their beliefs on people who don’t share their faith or kill others in the name of their religion.  Reflecting on the tragedy of 911, American physicist and religious skeptic Victor Stenger once noted that, “Science flies you to the moon.  Religion flies you into buildings.”  I am not suggesting that religious belief is always as evil as the insanity that led the 911 hijackers to kill thousands of innocent people, but religious belief clearly is that evil sometimes.  The Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, the depredations of ISIS, and other mass religious-based killings through history prove that religion, no matter how honorably conceived, is capable of horrific deeds.  Science is not blameless either in the harmful treatment of human beings.  After all, scientists created Zyklon B, the gas the Nazis used to exterminate Jews, and atomic bombs, which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and pose an unending threat today.

That science is capable of creating instruments of destruction is evidence that science is amoral—and the definition of that word is important.  Something that is amoral is neither moral nor immoral; it is unaware of or indifferent to questions of right or wrong.  Science is the search for truth and understanding, and that understanding can create escalators as well as poison gas.  It’s up to us to make wise and moral decisions about how to use science and technology, just as it is up to us to use religious belief for good rather than evil.

American statesman and President John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”  His observation reminds me of a story I read as a teenager.  A man was cursed by a voodoo priest, and he asked his friend if he should be worried about it.  His friend asked if the man believed in voodoo.  The man said he wasn’t sure, and his friend replied, “If voodoo is not real, then nothing will happen.  If voodoo is real, then it won’t matter whether you believe in it or not.”

Female chemist holding a beaker with a yellow fluid
Science is about observation and experimentation. They provide the insights into nature’s secrets.

So it is with science.  The reality of existence, which we know through scientific truth, is verifiable and immutable.  Truth doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not.  The truth is the truth as much as we can discover it through observation, experimentation, measurement, and rational understanding.  Can you trust it?  Can you trust science?  Yes, as much as you can trust your toaster (which is an artifact of scientific discovery) or your Velcro fastener (another scientific artifact), or the fact that the Earth is round and revolves around the Sun.  As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”  Remind yourself of that the next time you turn on your radio and hear music.

I’m going to close with one more quote about science, this one from Galileo.  He said, “In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.”  He may have been talking about himself, inasmuch as he was threatened with death by the church for discoveries that violated church dogma.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what hundreds, or thousands, or even millions of people believe.  If those beliefs are wrong, and can be proven wrong through scientific discovery, then the truth will prevail.  It will prevail because dogma is not verifiable, and when the winds of change wear thin the veil of superstition and myth, the truth will remain and will eventually be acknowledged and accepted, even by hosts of doubters who wished it were not true because it violates their convictions.

 

Photography credits:  Biochemists looking at helix (ID 76839435  © Sergey Khakimullin | Dreamstime.com); two engineers (ID 119421001 © Monkey Business Images | Dreamstime.com); female chemist looking at yellow beaker (ID 144745268 © Souvik Sarkar | Dreamstime.com)

 

 

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Scientists Discover an Earth-like Planet

I have always been a science geek and lover of science fiction.  In my teenage years, I traveled to many faraway planets in my imagination and was convinced that we are not alone in the universe.  I’m still convinced.  The universe is too vast and Earth is not special enough for this to be the only planet where life emerged among trillions of planets in billions of galaxies.  Simple math indicates that there must be a vast number of habitable planets where life evolved and no doubt exists in forms even our most creative science fiction writers have not dreamed of.

That said, I am less excited than I might be about the recent discovery of an Earth-like planet a mere 490 light years away from us.  Kepler 186f is estimated to be about ten percent larger than Earth and to orbit in the “Goldilocks zone” around its star.  This is the habitable zone around a star, where temperatures on the planet would permit liquid water to exist, and water is a prerequisite for the formation of life as we know it.  The composition of Kepler 186f is unknown, but scientists say that it is probably a rocky planet like ours.  Further studies are needed to determine whether it has an atmosphere, which would protect any living beings on it from deadly radiation.

Photo of the Milky Way galaxyIt is tantalizing to imagine discovering life on another planet and sending astronauts to make contact, but the reality of space exploration beyond our solar system makes this prospect not only unlikely but positively inconceivable.  But let’s pretend for a moment that we could build a spaceship capable of making the trip and that we had discovered the technology required to sustain human life for centuries of space travel—because that’s what it would take.  We would have to build a craft capable of making or recycling air, water, and food; of enabling repairs; of eliminating or recycling waste; of making or renewing energy and fuel; of finding, mining, and refining raw materials and other resources needed for a long journey; and of doing everything else necessary to support a trip of truly cosmic proportions.

As Einstein discovered, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light (186,282 miles per second), which means that it would take 490 years to travel from Earth to Kepler 186f—if our spaceship could travel at the speed of light, which is impossible, because things traveling at that speed would have infinite mass.  Worse, it would take an infinite amount of energy to reach that speed.  Nonetheless, let’s assume that we could travel at the speed of light to Kepler 186f.  Further, let’s assume that our astronauts spend 490 years getting to the planet, 1 year exploring (making friends, learning the language, sampling the cuisine; taking selfies), and then another 490 years returning to Earth to tell us about it.

So the total trip would take 981 years (traveling at the speed of light).  Then there’s the time required to speed up, slow down, do your laundry, etc., so let’s round our trip time up to a neat ten centuries.  If our spaceship launched in 2015, it would not return to Earth until 3015, and none of us who watched the launch in 2015 would be around to see it return.  Neither would our children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children (and so on).

Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that because, compared to us on slow-moving Earth, time would speed up for our brave astronauts while they were traveling at light speed.  They would Imaginary flight control console in an interstellar spaceshipnot age as quickly as those of us who remained on terra firma.  Then there’s the problem of normal human aging.  In each century on Earth there are on average about four generations of people, so on this 1,000-year-long journey there would have been forty generations of humans who were born, educated, lived, worked, procreated, complained, and died on our spaceship.  Whoever returned to Earth from Kepler 186f would not recognize the Earth they returned to or any people alive at that time (and vice versa).  It would be like us traveling back to the year 1015 and trying to discuss science and technology, world affairs, the heartbreak of psoriasis, and the price of eggs with people still mired in the Middle Ages.

And that’s assuming that we could travel at the speed of light, which is impossible.  If we could travel at one-quarter the speed of light, which hypothetically might someday be achievable, our journey would take 4,000 years and require 160 generations of people.

But maybe, a sci-fi enthusiast would argue, maybe we can figure out how to travel faster than the speed of light.  Dream on.  Warp speed ala Star Trek is not possible.  Or it might be more accurate to say it doesn’t appear to be possible because no one in the Milky Way galaxy seems to have done it—or at least if they have they haven’t visited Earth.  UFO advocates aside, we really don’t have solid, irrefutable proof that aliens have landed here (and, no, Steven Spielberg’s movies don’t count).  You might be from Roswell, New Mexico, and be confident that aliens have visited Earth, but I would ask where is the space alien museum with irrefutable evidence of alien visitation?  Where’s the government agency responsible for extraterrestrial affairs?  Where are the websites for bona fide aliens?  There are some truly odd people on Facebook, but I would venture that all of them were born on Earth (sad to say).

It is amusing to believe that all things are possible, but if they were why haven’t we seen evidence of it?  Someone once asked British physicist Stephen Hawking about the possibility of time travel, and he famously replied:  “I have experimental evidence that time travel is not possible.  I gave a party for time-travelers, but I didn’t send out the invitations until after the party.  I sat there a long time, but no one came.”

There’s another problem with traveling to Kepler 186f.  Even if it were possible to do it, we couldn’t be sure that when we arrived life on that planet would be at a stage where anything more than boring observation from afar would be possible.  We probably couldn’t trade phone numbers or recipes.  Homo sapiens have existed on Earth in a form we would recognize for, let’s say, 100,000 years, but the Earth has existed for 4.54 billion years.  And only in the past 150 years or so have we invented such primitive technology as radio.  We didn’t invent more advanced technology until the past 50 years or so.  That’s a really short period of time, like an eye blink, given the immensity of time in which the Earth has existed.

Stopwatch half buried in sandWhat this suggests is that for us to observe life on Kepler 186f that could communicate with us, we would have to arrive at precisely the right moment in that planet’s evolution.  If there’s life on Kepler 186f, it may have started millions of years before or after life on Earth did.  We might arrive at Kepler 186f and find the equivalent of dinosaurs or green algae soup or swamp gas illuminated by tiny glowing insects.  Or we might discover a primordial sea filled with disconnected protein fragments.  On the other hand, we might discover a world teeming with life so advanced we can’t comprehend it—or paranoid beings who see us coming and blow our spaceship out of the sky before we have a chance to say hello.

This is why the discovery of Kepler 186f leaves me feeling lonely in the cosmos.  I wish it weren’t so, but even the most tantalizing evidence of the potential for life elsewhere in our galaxy is something we may never be able to confirm, much less explore.  So I am left with the belief that the universe is probably teeming with life, but I’ll never be able to invite E.T. over for dinner and find out what life is like on his/her/its planet.  Darn.   Imagine what a fascinating conversation that would be.

 

 

Images courtesy of Pixabay.