What Is Science?
- Science cannot prove anything true. That's what mathematics does. Formal
logic (propositional calculus, predicate calculus, and its relatives) can be viewed as
mathematics stripped of content. Mathematics, and its relatives, are incredibly sensitive
(by empirical standards) to initial assumptions and conditions.
- Statistics is the branch of mathematics closest to science. (In some universities, it
even rates its own department). Statistics answers the question, "How plausible is it that
these two data sets really are about the same thing?" While the creation of the
theory is mathematics (and thus proves things true), the application of statistics is about
whether two things are acting differently. This is why proposed pharmaceutical treatments
are compared against placebos.
Whether a placebo actually has clinical effects against specific pathologies/symptoms is
controversial. From the viewpoint of scientifically evaluating a pharmaceutical treatment,
it doesn't matter. If there is no measurable difference in effect (on a specific
condition) between a isotonic saline solution and a solution of medicine X, why should you
(or your health insurance plan) pay for that solution of medicine X? If medicine X is
measurably worse (on a specific condition) than that isotonic saline solution,
shouldn't it be malpractice to use it (on that specific condition)?
- Science is not about how to think about the world around us. That is the job of
religion (or lack thereof), and philosophy. [This is a Western distinction...Eastern
cultures often consider these as one subject. Use both approaches as each proves convenient.]
Some choices of religion and/or philosophy define science as impossible. While the linguistic
distinction that enabled the discussion of science as a separate discipline from magic is first
recorded in 4th century BC Greece, the first era (and region) when a religion/philosophy that
considered science possible seems to have been Renaissance Europe somewhen between 1500 and
1550. [The last comment is based on a change in recorded worldview: a consistent attempt to
cooperate with nature, rather than defy nature, when attempting to gain control
over natural phenomenae. Yes, I'm glossing over a lot of history here.]
Obviously, one's choice of religion and/or philosophy will seriously affect what
questions one would subject to science. Red China, for instance, has a much easier time
scientifically investigating applications of acupressure and acupuncture than the
Disasters can happen when something designed using science is abused by operators
who are oblivious to the consequences of flouting the design basis. An example is the
Chernoybl reactor meltdown/explosion (1981, Ukraine -- the Soviet Union was the government
in effect then). This happened because the plant supervisor deliberately, with reasonable
understanding of what could happen, ran the reactor without coolant in order to
keep his job.
A more recent example (Japan, 1999 or 2000), again from the nuclear power industry,
happened when a nuclear power plant holding company doctored its safety manuals
to authorize the direct mixing (by hand) of uranium oxide solutions with insufficient safety
factors in quantity. That is, the company directly authorized violating Japanese safety
regulations as standard procedure. Three misinstructed workers (following standard procedure),
ignorant of what could happen, mixed together a sufficient quantity to cause a momentary
uncontrolled fission reaction. This wasn't enough to heat the water -- but the bright blue
flash came with a radiation dose sufficient to immediately knock them out. (The least-exposed
worker took about 21 sieverts [very roughly 35,000 rem]. 5,000 rem is sufficient to cause
cerebrovascular collapse within 24 hours.) The most advanced hospitals in the area were unable
to keep the other two workers alive.
All scientific statements have a way to show that they are wrong, by definition.
In order to do this, it usually is necessary to severely control the circumstances. As a result,
science is concerned with how things act now. Scientific facts (i.e., all attempts to
show them false haven't worked) may be extrapolated (mathematically or logically) to try to
understand the past or predict the future.
- A necessary metaphysical assumption, when extrapolating scientific facts to understand
the past (or predict the future), is that the "rules don't change". That is, we smoothly
extrapolate what we believe works now as far as we can in space and time. For instance,
the steady-state cosmology explained the apparent equal prevalence of galaxies in all directions
(after accounting for the blocking effects of our own galaxy, the Milky Way). However, it could
not deal with Olber's Paradox (Heinrich Olbers, 1758-1840): why is the sky dark? After all,
if space and time are truly unbounded, should not all lines of sight eventually
intersect a star (or something sufficiently heated by a star)? Then testing of radio
telescopes found a redshifted, practically isotropic thermal radiation (in the radio range)
across all of the sky...this provoked the Big Bang cosmology, which had to be modified (by
inflation) to explain why the radio background radiation is in thermal equilbrium. Note:
the Big Bang is also a smooth extrapolation of the current known physics.
- This, incidentally, explains how the life cycle of stars can be discussed: while we do
not have the experience base (including both historical and collective personal) to watch the
whole process, professional astronomers (with supercomputer assistance for some aspects) can
combine the observations of millions of stars, with supercomputer emulations of these stars,
to make informed estimates of things such as lifespan from other things like observed spectrum,
brightness, and parallax (or lack thereof). I have already used this assumption once: when
explaining the use of the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram to estimate relative distances of star
clusters. We also assume, when doing these extrapolations, that we do not find unexpected
discontinuities in spacetime either backwards (religion: statements about creation) or
forwards (religion: statements about eschatology).
- Black holes are expected discontinuities in space-time, as is the Planck time for the
Big Bang (when the projected density of the universe approximates a collection of point masses
whose quantum wavelength equals its Schwarzschild radius]: the mathematical model tells us that
it is incorrect! For black holes, the mathematics breaks down well inside the event horizon.
- To visualize what an unexpected discontinuity is, drop a ball from a (small) height.
There is no reason to expect the ball to hit the ground unless you look at where
the ball is going (the ground is in its path). From the viewpoint of science, as long as
there is no physical evidence of a discontinuity, it is meaningful to assume there is
no discontinuity when doing these extrapolations. The near-isotropy of the background microwave
radiation, with other considerations, suggests that we (or at least those who take the time
to learn all of the physics required) can do so at least as far back as when matter ceased
to be a plasma. This is as far back as we can see physically: a time when the average
temperature of the universe was roughly 3,000K. All portions of the universe further away than
this point are not visible to us with any sort of electromagnetic telescope (optical, radio,
x-ray, gamma-ray, etc.). [This is how the Big Bang theory disposes of Olbers' Paradox.]
- Theoretically, one could look for evidence of an unexpected discontinuity in spacetime.
Obviously, such an exercise is much more feasible looking into the past, than trying to work
forwards. The microwave background radiation, and other considerations, suggest that there is
probably no cosmological-scale evidence of an unexpected discontinuity in space-time.
Opinions, comments, criticism, etc.? Let me know about it.
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