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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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Science: Mankind’s Greatest Achievement!

How is that for the ultimate claim in the ultimate[1] essay in this series? Science: mankind’s greatest achievement. Can there be any doubt? In the four hundred years since science went mainstream, we have learned how the universe works, changed our conception of man’s place in it, and provided the knowledge to develop fantastic technology. We have big history: the inspiring story of the universe beginning with the primordial big bang and creating order out of chaos through self-interaction, and finally life arising and evolving in our corner of the universe. We have developed models that describe the universe on the largest visible scales down to sub-atomic sizes: astronomy, biology, chemistry, cosmology, medicine, physics, psychology, animate, inanimate, eater, and eatee. The models form a mosaic that overlap and interlock to form a seamless whole.  An amazingly complete picture. There is still much to know, but let us take credit as scientists, that much is known. And yes, we should be glad to be living in a time when so much is known.

However, science has two short-comings[2]: it does not offer the illusions of certainty or purpose.  I once came across a last will and testament that began: I commit my body into the ground in the sure and certain knowledge it will be restored to me on the judgement day. Ah, for sure and certain knowledge. Well, the judgement day has not come yet so we do not know if his sure and certain knowledge was valid, but the resurrection of the body is much less prominent in Christian apologetics than it used to be.  When it comes to knowledge, science promises less but delivers more than its competitors in philosophy or theology. I would take Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) over Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650), Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), or William Paley (1743 – 1805) any day of the week and all together.  Their certain knowledge has largely vanished, but Newton’s uncertain and approximate knowledge is still being used in many practical applications. Ask any mechanical engineer.

In the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001) introduces the total perspective vortex. It was created by a husband whose wife keeps telling him to put things in perspective. However, when anyone looked in the vortex, they realized how utterly insignificant they were in the vast stretches of the universe and invariably went insane and died. This proved that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion. Ah yes, the human need for importance and purpose. I guess the best science can come up with for a purpose is entropy[3] generation. I am not sure that is any worse than what I had heard from a Christian apologist who claimed we were created by God to worship him. Personally, I would never worship that narcissistic a God.

Despite its shortcomings, perceived or real, science has a tremendous track record. But the best is still to come. Let us not make the mistake of the late nineteenth century physicists who thought all the important questions had been answered.  There are things that enquiring minds still want to know: What, if anything, was there before the big bang? How do you combine gravity and quantum mechanics? Is there a solution for global warming that is politically acceptable? Are there room temperature superconductors? How did life begin? How intelligent were the Neanderthals? How does the mind work? The last strikes me as the most interesting question: the final frontier[4].  It has the potential to open up a whole new front in the conflict between science and religion, or science and philosophy.  But it is interesting nonetheless. Answering these questions and others will take clever theoretical approaches, clever experiments, and clever approaches to funding. However, the techniques of science are up to the task.

But what is science? In the final analysis, it is a human activity, an exercise of the human mind. We construct models and paradigms because that is how our minds and brains have evolved to deal with the complexities of our experiences. Thus, the nature of science is tied closely to the last question asked above: How does the mind work? Ultimately, how science works and indeed, the very definition of knowledge, are questions for neuroscience and the empirical study of the mind.

I am taking a break from blogging for the rest of the summer but may have some more blogs in the fall. I have run out of interesting things to say (no snide comments that that happened a long time ago). I would like to thank people for their many comments. They have been quite informative. To receive notices of future posts, if and when they occur, follow me on Twitter: @musquod.

 


[1] That is the LP in the language of effective field theorists (LP=last post, not long playing as you old timers thought).

[2] Humility is not one of them.

[3] Entropy generation is the driving force behind evolution.

[4] Sorry Star Trek fans, it is the mind, not space.

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