The latest wave of internet click-bait intrigues me. Apparently there are things ‘scientists’ hate because they can’t explain them.
The supposition that ‘scientists’ validate themselves on complete literal knowledge and therefore ‘hate’ what they can’t explain plays on the needs of the credulous. Stupid scientists. It’s so easy to put them in their place. Quite.
The reality for ‘science’ is very different. To me, the term means far more than the vast panoply of endeavours and studies that range from black hole physics to DNA analysis, engineering and so on, all of which have created the technology we rely on to survive today. Science is really a philosophy of thinking, one that complements other philosophies, if we let it. And the unknown and unexplainable merely spurs curiosity.
The funny thing is that a lot of what is presented over ‘the internet’ (aka ‘Facebook’, click-bait sites, etc) as an ‘unexplainable mystery’, in fact, can be very easily explained – the problem is that the people presenting it as a mystery don’t know the science. The logic is ‘I can’t explain it, therefore nobody can’. This mind-set drove a lot of the ‘ancient astronaut’ woo, among much other woo, in the twentieth century.
A friend of mine theorises that it’s a human issue. People like to be able to fit the universe into their heads. Hence the focus on complete literal knowledge. A point tempered, my friend suggests, by the apparent fact that many people have very small heads.
I have to agree.
From the scientific perspective, even ‘something’ that can’t currently be explained doesn’t imply it can’t ever be explained. On the contrary, the essence of science is discovering such things. Sometimes that merely provokes fresh questions: but that’s OK too. And science is also about modifying that understanding if fresh evidence reveals something new.
Back in the seventeenth century, ‘science’ couldn’t explain the transmission of light in vacuum. Did scientists of the day – such as Sir Isaac Newton – ‘hate’ the question? Of course not. It was there to be answered: and from this emerged the hypothesis of the ‘aether’, an invisible material that permeated everything and allowed light to flow.
Alas, the 1887 experiment by Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley to prove its existence (specifically, the way the aether was ‘dragged’ by the Earth’s movement around the Sun) failed at the first hurdle – because the ‘aether’ didn’t exist. And ‘science’ couldn’t explain why. Um – wooooo? In fact from a scientific perspective this merely meant that a different explanation was needed, and it was found soon enough by George FitzGerald, Hendrik Lorentz, Henri Poincare and, among others, Albert Einstein. Light – as with all radiation – didn’t need a transmission medium because, as a ‘wavicle’, it transmitted itself.
To me, the way forward is to accept that science is an abstract endeavour, one that’s totally exciting because there’s always something we need to find out. What? How? Let’s go hunting! Does the answer turn out to be another question? Hey – that’s very, very cool.
Maybe the ultimate answer is that we will always be discovering ways of informing our next question.
Actually, that isn’t really a ‘maybe’, given that it’s already been shown – mathematically – that you can’t fully analyse a system of which you are yourself a part.
But that’s OK too. Do we live in a universe which, by nature, drives our sense of wonder? Isn’t that fabulous!
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015