The thoughts expressed in Science and Society
were the inspiration for the novel,
Goodbye Milky Way.
Science and Society
Mankind has always had his eyes on the skies, trying to understand his place in the world and his reason for being. Before Galileo, men like Aristotle organized their observations into theoretical concepts. Aristotle for example concluded that the world we see is composed of five elements: fire, water, air, earth, and ether; the last being the stuff of which heavenly bodies are made. He argued that all five elements are composed of the smallest of possible building blocks called atoms; but God was not composed of atoms, as he was the Prime Mover . . . the original force that causes all motion to occur.
However, it was Galileo who ushered in the Scientific Method which requires theories such as Aristotle’s to be proven through experiments that can be repeated by others. The Scientific Method now separated mankind’s understanding into two realms: Faith and Proof. Unfortunately, human beings blur the distinctions between what we accept based on faith and what we know based on proof. A community’s belief based on word of mouth observation is considered less valid than a scientist’s belief based on observable patterns in nature; even though neither will have been proven by a repeatable experiment. Scientists will argue that an experimentally unproven theory has increasing validity based on how well it explains or predicts events in nature. Many people decide that any belief that is not explained by the most current theory is to be dismissed, often with disdain. Yet, they fail to recall when beliefs not supported by a precursor theory have somehow become acceptable under the latest theory, or when a scientific dogma is proved to be false.
In grade school of the 1940’s and 50’s children were taught that dinosaurs dragged their tails behind them. All the picture books showed them as big lumbering tail-dragging beasts with skin like an elephant’s. Today our children are taught that dinosaurs were nimble creatures that held their tails up high behind them for balance and defense, and that they had feathers. Recently a fossil dubbed “Jane” was promoted to be a junior T. Rex despite arguments to the contrary. Shortly after paleontologists publicly declared that Jane was definitely a young T. Rex, other scientists performed a CT scan of Jane’s skull and proved that Jane was a completely unknown species of dinosaur.
For decades shipwrecked sailors told stories of rogue waves 80 to 100 feet high that sank their ships. Sometimes they described a calm sea, out of which appeared a giant demolition wave. Captains who claimed to have lost their ship in this manner were often ridiculed or spurned, because it was assumed they were covering up their incompetence with a prevarication. No one believed the personal observations of professional seamen; not shipping companies, not insurance companies, not fellow seamen. So, no research was conducted and many lives were lost. In 1995 a massive oil drilling platform in the North Sea was damaged by a reported rogue wave; however, this time electronic equipment had captured proof it really was a rogue wave.
For many years modern chemistry held that atoms of the same element could only interact with their outer-most electrons. Recent experimentation on lithium, a metal, has proven that under extreme pressure like that found at the center of the Earth, the core electrons of different atoms do indeed interact.
It is not helpful that the public seems to be unaware of the arguments between scientists about which one of their pet theories is correct. The arguments can become nasty and political; not exactly a scientific approach to finding truth. If this all too human way of asserting the superiority of one’s work had no serious consequences, it would be humorous. Often, one theory wins out, because it has answered more questions and has fewer holes than the competing theory. But even then some of the best scientific minds refuse to believe in the winning theory. The most famous case of this division of the minds was at the Solvay Conference in Brussels in 1927. Scientists were there arguing over the theory of quantum mechanics. On the one side was Bohr’s theory and on the other side was Heissenberg’s theory. Einstein was on Bohr’s side of the argument and he threw question after question and problem after problem at Heissenberg who responded logically and consistently to every attack. It was finally agreed at the conference that Heissenberg’s interpretation of the atom was the most robust. They agreed it meant that the behavior of atoms can only be interpreted by probabilistic mathematics. Accordingly, we would never be able to have an accurate three-dimensional image of an atom. Heissenberg’s uncertainty principle said that you can measure an electron’s velocity, but you would not know its position, and you can identify an electron’s location, but you would not know its velocity. Electrons orbiting the nucleus of an atom could move from one level to another without ever occupying the space in between. Einstein said about Heissenberg’s quantum mechanics: “I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos.” He took his disbelief with him to the grave.
When Einstein proposed his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905, it implied that time slows as an object’s speed increases, because the speed of light is constant in a vacuum. Accordingly, nothing can go faster than the speed of light; yet research on quantum tunneling by Dr. Nimtz and Dr. Stahlhofen led to their announcement, in August 2007, that microwave photons can travel faster than the speed of light.
In 1915 Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity which was probably the greatest leap of inductive reasoning ever accomplished. His concept of the equivalency of gravity and acceleration was completely new. His theory, extrapolated by other scientists in 1939, even predicted the existence of black holes; yet he personally could not accept that they existed. Of course today we know that they do exist.
When the standard “Big Bang” theory of the Universe was proposed in 1922 by Friedmann, it implied that there should be residual cosmic background radiation, called noise, all around us. Except for “red shift” in the light from distant galaxies, the theory was not supported by experimental results until the noise was discovered in 1965 by Penzias and Wilson, just as the theory predicted. There are still prominent scientists who argue that there are other models that can explain the evidence, and that the “Big Bang” model may be the most popular, but it is not the most robust. Noted physicist, Dr. Robert Gentry, has published papers identifying the many flaws in the standard “Big Bang” theory. Nevertheless, many scientists are now saying that time itself did not exist before the Big Bang, when in fact they have no evidence of that. Scientists just haven’t learned to say “We don’t know” when in fact they “don’t know”. They also can’t resist popularizing one theory over another instead of letting the public know about all the competing theories.
The fact that scientists are human, and respond like humans, is a given. So, it doesn't surprise us when scientists have no problem expressing doubt about other people's ideas while staunchly defending their own pet ideas. However, there is a consequence to society, because bad science continues to be used for personal gain and political advantage at the expense of the general public who must foot the bill for governmental policies based on incorrect conclusions. Ideally, controversy should lead to greater scientific experimentation in order to resolve the dispute. In fact what sometimes happens is that one side takes the political approach and makes it untenable for scientists to do research in the area, out of fear of public ridicule, or out of concern for one’s career.
Several areas of scientific inquiry affected by this phenomenon come to mind: One is the existence of UFO’s (unidentified flying objects) presumably guided by some form of alien intelligence. Reputable scientists will not touch this out of fear of being ridiculed, despite all of the circumstantial evidence. Besides, funding for UFO research would come only from tabloids and TV’s Science Fiction channel. Either source of funding will hardly bring credibility to one’s research.
Another area needing unbiased scientific research is the “global warming phenomenon”. The political pressure to support the idea that mankind is responsible for what appears to be a global warming trend is so strong that many scientists are afraid to come out publicly to dispute the idea. There is data to show we may actually be cooling rather than warming. There is data to show that man’s contribution to greenhouse gases is so small compared to what nature generates, that mankind is not likely to have caused any warming effect. Research on solar activity has established a strong correlation between sun spots and climate change on Earth. None of this strong evidence can halt the “global warming” steamroller which is causing environmental policies of many nations to waste trillions of dollars.
The third area that deserves unbiased scientific scrutiny is Darwin’s theory of evolution, as put forth in his treatise, “The Origin of Species”. There are many holes in his theory, even after so many years of examining the fossil record. Yet, scientists are ridiculed as “creationists”, and blackballed, if they point out the gaps, fallacies, and evidence that suggest it is not likely for one species to have gradually changed over many millions of years into another species through minor biological changes that proved over time to increase the chances of survival. An unbiased review of the fossil record shows that minor changes over time within a given species are highly likely to have occurred, but that a new species developing gradually from an existing species is highly unlikely to have occurred. The simple fact is that we do not know how a new species appears on Earth; many have been shown to appear suddenly in geologic time, and many more have become extinct just as rapidly. Actually, we don’t even have a good definition of “species”.
An idea that does not conform to the latest theory is not inherently false, if both the idea and the theory have not been validated with repetitious independent scientific experimentation. The usefulness of a theory does not, by itself, prove the theory. No line of scientific research is inherently unworthy.
Yet it is not only scientific inquiry via the Scientific Method that benefits society. Science fiction works of all kinds benefit society by stimulating the imagination and encouraging our young to become scientists and engineers. Is it any wonder then that their adult discoveries and inventions often began as a seed in their minds from some wonderful science fiction story of their youth. Was it Dick Tracy’s wristwatch or Star Trek’s flip-communicator that blazed the trail for the modern cell phone? We may not know the answer, but there is no doubt that technological advances begin in our imagination. Whenever the pursuit of true science is discouraged by political correctness, ideological conformity, intellectual dishonesty or self-aggrandizement, then the advancement of our society is dealt a severe blow.
Science and Society
science fiction author