Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The shifting sands of science

First we discovered that dinosaurs weren't all the scaly or pachyderm monsters of popular films and TV programmes, but that some had feathers "just like our pigeons in the park". I feel a tiny bit guilty that my children grew up with Usborne picture books, which have given them quite the wrong impression. Oh dear, oh dear!
However now something much more fundamentally serious has raised its fascinating head, emanating from the CERN laboratories in Geneva. That is that particles (neutrinos, I think) seem to be travelling faster than the speed of light. BUT THAT'S IMPOSSIBLE - according to Einstein's Theory of Relativity. It would mean that one could travel backwards in time - even if, so it seemed to this non-scientist, rather slowly. Well, the European scientists reckon they've checked and double-checked the improbable findings; the Americans at Fermilab in Chicago, it has to be said, are sceptical and reckon their transatlantic buddies have overlooked some tiny but significant detail and are setting out to "prove" it.

When the news broke, there was quite a bit of fluttering in the dovecotes of physics. On the World Tonight programme on Radio 4, the space scientist, Dr Maggie Aderine-Pollock, had an excited conversation with presenter, Ritulah Shah. Aren't you frightened, she was asked, that this undermines your whole scientific world? "If this experiment is correct," she replied, "it is slightly scary, because it means we’re stepping into the unknown, but at the same time there’s a real sense of excitement, because what will we find instead?"
RS: "So do you think the popular view of science in which, arguably, science provides all the answers is very misplaced?" 
MA-P: "I think we went through the same process in the 1950s in relation to medicine - doctors knew it all." Now we know they don't. "Science is an evolving process."
Then Ritulah Shah asked this very interesting question: "If the CERN experiment can be replicated, if the data can be stood up, then would it be better for the popular view of science to be one of science delivering new questions and discoveries rather than of one of it delivering the answers?" and received this equally interesting and honest answer: "Yes, because 'answer' sounds as if we have all the answers and we've got it done and dusted; and that isn't how science works. Science works... as an evolution.... We don't have answers; we have evolving questions." Now that, to me, sounds like real science - and to be true, whatever the outcome of the neutrino debate. 

And it reminds me of Socrates' wisdom, as related by Plato: "This man, on one hand, believes that he knows something, while not knowing anything. On the other hand, I - equally ignorant - do not believe that I know anything." There's a conditionality which popularisers of science seem unable to grasp, bestowing on scientists an omniscience which the best of them would not claim for themselves. Science is a voyage of discovery, not a destination.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this comment which I received by email this week:
    "Poor old Einstein, and he was so good at his sums. What troubles me is the limerick:
    'There was a young lady from Bright
    Who could travel much faster than light.
    She set off one day
    In a relative way
    And came back the previous night.'

    because the last line must now be amended to something like:
    'And came back last Wednesday afternoon'.
    which neither rhymes nor scans very well.