Astronomer Rhodri Evans explains how persistent inquisitiveness and a faith in science can help us understand the wonders of nature.
In the movie A Beautiful Mind, Charles says to John Nash, the hero of the film, “Nothing’s ever for sure, John. That’s the only sure thing I do know.”. And yet I am sure of science, I have faith in science.
Too many people think science is about a series of facts, whereas science is really a process by which we try to understand nature. The recent announcement of neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light is a wonderful example of how science works. The result has been announced after the experimenters have checked and rechecked their data thousands of times. The scientific community is shocked that Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity can be challenged in this way, and over the next few months (or possibly years) we shall see whether Einstein was really right and the experimenters have made a mistake somewhere, or whether we are witnessing a re-writing of our understanding of nature. [Of course, if Einstein is wrong, then your GPS device wouldn’t work.]
The way we will get to the bottom of this surprising result is why I have faith in science. The scientific community will see if they can determine where the error is in the experiment’s results, and other teams will try and repeat the experiment with their different equipment to see if the result the CERN-Italian team has found is reproducible. If the results cannot be reproduced, then the scientific community will not accept the results, and the announcement will fade into the history of false dawns. If, however, no mistake is found in the experiment and the experiment’s results are reproduced by others, then we shall have to accept, no matter how painful, that Einstein was indeed wrong.
However, as Carl Sagan once said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.
We must treat this result with caution. This would not be the first time that experiments at the Italian neutrino detector at Gran Sasso have made extraordinary claims. In 2000, they claimed to have detected dark matter, and in 2002 to have observed the rarest known type of radioactive decay – the so called “neutrinoless double-beta decay“. Neither of these two results has ever been replicated by another laboratory, although the Gran Sasso scientists still stand by their announcements. If an experimental result cannot be replicated by an independent team using a separate experiment (with, preferably separate equipment), then the result is generally not accepted by the scientific community.
There are many unanswered questions in science, including in my own discipline of astrophysics. This week saw the announcement of the 2011 Nobel prize for Physics, and it went to a trio (Perlmutter, Riess and Schmidt) who discovered (along with the teams they lead) that the expansion of the universe is, in fact, accelerating. I was lucky enough to be at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in 1998 when this result was first announced, To say the audience was stunned would be an understatement. The force which is driving the universe apart at a quicker and quicker rate has been dubbed “dark energy” but some 13 years on from the announcement, we still don’t really know what dark energy is. Of course, one could take the point of view that it is mystical, and we shall never get to the bottom of it. I, however, have faith in science, and in the creative abilities of human beings. I believe that, one day, we will understand what is causing this acceleration. The natural inquisitiveness of humans, and the rigours of the scientific process, make me believe that this, and the many other unsolved mysteries in Nature, will one day be much better understood than they currently are.
Science can never answer why?
What science will never be able to do is answer the question “why”. We believe we have a very good understanding of gravity.Newton observed an apple falling from a tree and realised the same force kept the Moon in orbit around the Earth. Einstein built on this, and weaved gravity into the very fabric of space and time itself. So we now can calculate with exquisite detail how gravity behaves, sending space probes to land with pin-point accuracy on distant worlds. But we are no closer to knowing “why” an apple falls from a tree, only how. We believe we can describe the universe back to the very first fraction of a second after the Big Bang, using well understood laws of physics. But we will never, I believe, know why the Universe came about.
I have faith in our inquisitiveness. I have faith in science.
Dr Rhodri Evans has a 1st class honours degree in Physics from Imperial College, London and a PhD in Astrophysics from the University of Wales, Cardiff. He has been a professor at the highly prestigious Swarthmore College and a research associate at The University of Chicago. He is currently research fellow in Cardiff University’s School of Physics & Astronomy and the head of Mathematics & Physics at the Wales International Study Centre. He is the only UK Astronomer with guaranteed observing time on NASA’s SOFIA. Rhodri is a frequent speaker on TV, radio and at astronomical societies. When not doing Astronony, Rhodri likes to run, relax with his wife and children and to travel. You can find Rhodri Evans on Facebook
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