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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Beauty of Science

There were two articles in the on-line version of the New York Times about science. The first was an article about the program "Mythbusters" which, despite all the explosions, fires, and rotting pig carcasses, is actually the best science program on television. The Mythbusters take a common myth and test it to see if it is true, false, or plausible.
Their delight in discovery for its own sake is familiar to most scientists, who welcome any result because it either confirms or debunks a hypothesis. That sense of things can be corrupted when grants or licensing deals are on the line. But the Mythbusters get paid whether their experiments succeed or fail.

......They come up with a hypothesis and test it methodically. After research and experimentation, they might determine that they have “busted” a myth or confirmed it, or they might simply deem it “plausible” but not proved.

It is the kind of logical system of evidence-based conclusions that scientists understand but that others can sometimes find difficult to grasp. And so “Mythbusters” fans say the show has hit on a great way of teaching the process of scientific discovery.

David Wallace, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at M.I.T., praises the program for “getting people interested in engineering, technology and how things work.” I have often found, when talking to non-scientists, that they have little or no concept of how science (and medicine) work.

A distant cousin of mine was railing on about science one day, and complaining that medicine can't be trusted. "They tell you something is good for you, and then a few years later it turns out it's actually bad for you. Why should I trust them?" I spent a long time trying to explain the concepts of research and scientific technique, but he wasn't convinced. (He's an art teacher and a Republican.) Next time I'll just tell him to watch Mythbusters.

The second article concerned a forum held this month at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, CA, which was a dialogue between science and religion. Those speaking were all scinists, weighing in on the pros and cons of religion. On the pro side:
“There are six billion people in the world,” said Francisco J. Ayala, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Roman Catholic priest. “If we think that we are going to persuade them to live a rational life based on scientific knowledge, we are not only dreaming — it is like believing in the fairy godmother.”

“People need to find meaning and purpose in life,” he said. “I don’t think we want to take that away from them.”
On the con side:
Maybe the pivotal moment came when Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, warned that “the world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief,” or when a Nobelist in chemistry, Sir Harold Kroto, called for the John Templeton Foundation to give its next $1.5 million prize for “progress in spiritual discoveries” to an atheist — Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist whose book “The God Delusion” is a national best-seller.

But, overall, it was about science – how it is tied inextricably to human progress, and how religion often impedes the expansion of human knowledge, scientific and otherwise.
In the end it was Dr. Tyson’s celebration of discovery that stole the show. Scientists may scoff at people who fall back on explanations involving an intelligent designer, he said, but history shows that “the most brilliant people who ever walked this earth were doing the same thing.” When Isaac Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” failed to account for the stability of the solar system — why the planets tugging at one another’s orbits have not collapsed into the Sun — Newton proposed that propping up the mathematical mobile was “an intelligent and powerful being.”

It was left to Pierre Simon Laplace, a century later, to take the next step. Hautily telling Napoleon that he had no need for the God hypothesis, Laplace extended Newton’s mathematics and opened the way to a purely physical theory.

“What concerns me now is that even if you’re as brilliant as Newton, you reach a point where you start basking in the majesty of God and then your discovery stops — it just stops,” Dr. Tyson said. “You’re no good anymore for advancing that frontier, waiting for somebody else to come behind you who doesn’t have God on the brain and who says: ‘That’s a really cool problem. I want to solve it.’ ”

Science is a philosophy of discovery; intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance,” he said. “Something fundamental is going on in people’s minds when they confront things they don’t understand.”


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