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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.



  • Hmm, I am not sure we can let you take off for you summer break without defining “effective field theorists”

  • Effective field theorists are those people who talk of leading order (LO), next to leading order (NLO), next to next to leading order (N2LO), N3LO etc. I am a effective field poster since I have LP, NLP, N2LP, etc.

  • I am translating their texts to put on my blog, okay? I like many of his texts. 🙂

  • Jorge Guarda

    I am one of those that believes that Science is effectively Mankind’s Greatest Achievement!
    I’ve been enjoying your posts immensely. Thank you very much Byron and please do come back soon.


  • It would be fine if you do not post it in English, you acknowledge that the original is on Quantum Diaries and that you are responsible for the translation.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Agreed, the greatest achievement and a good place to take a vacation!

    However, I can’t agree with this:

    science has two short-comings[2]: it does not offer the illusions of certainty or purpose.

    For the latter, it isn’t supposed to: purpose is what we make for ourselves. But it can certainly be made such by some. Einstein comes to mind, though he had many other social purposes at work as well.

    For the former, science shows that certainty is tougher to achieve than naively believed, but that it can be eventually be done: “The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely Understood. Not sure why people don’t make a bigger deal out of this fact.”

    “A hundred years ago it would have been easy to ask a basic question to which physics couldn’t provide a satisfying answer. “What keeps this table from collapsing?” “Why are there different elements?” “What kind of signal travels from the brain to your muscles?” But now we understand all that stuff. (Again, not the detailed way in which everything plays out, but the underlying principles.) Fifty years ago we more or less had it figured out, depending on how picky you want to be about the nuclear forces. But there’s no question that the human goal of figuring out the basic rules by which the easily observable world works was one that was achieved once and for all in the twentieth century.

    You might question the “once and for all” part of that formulation, but it’s solid. Of course revolutions can always happen, but there’s every reason to believe that our current understanding is complete within the everyday realm.”

    – Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll –

    I think it isn’t well understood at all, but to paraphrase the fictive eminent empiricist Sherlock Holmes, if you have eliminated the impossible by testing, what remains must be the fact, however unlikely it seemed at first. For some reason, maybe because the observable universe is finite and only give us finite resources for theory proposition and testing, the recursion observably has ended in the most near and important case.

  • Oh yes, but, my blog is in portuguese. So, put the link quantum dieries. If you want to access
    I like your posts and want the Brazilians to read and not everyone knows English, ok?

  • christophe nicolas

    The space … The spirit … The mind is unknown to the territory within each of us. I believe that science has already begun to explore. We cut Einstein’s brain slices. What do we find? Nothing. We explored the brain Matthieu Ricard. It seems that this is the happiest man in the world. The solution is known for a long time, there is no mystery. It lacks one thing to science, only one thing to unlock everything. A major paradigm shift. Something that does not model, something that is not inside, not outside but a principle which includes everything on all scales. For science, this will remain a principle, inaccessible forever, yet it will give all the solutions. For humanity, the space is unknown outside the territory. Current theories say you can not go very far. But the standard model and the big bang look increasingly to “epicycles of Ptolemy.” Out of the paradigm, it is not important to us, it is important for future generations. But … I do not know if there will be a “parking brake” on “enterprise”. And then, I prefer another name. For example: the lion, or the unicorn …

  • Wonda Berzas

    I am going to bookmark your web-site for future reference. Keep up the fantastic work!.