Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Science, Large and Small

Science is unbelievable. Physicists track particles so small that billions of them fit on the head of a pin.
In fact, the pin is composed of them. Astronomers describe places in the universe so dense that light cannot escape their gravity – and there are billions of these black holes scattered across a universe so large that light would take 100 billion years to get across. Scientists can’t see either atomic particles or black holes, but they nevertheless can tell us how big they are, how they behave, their births and deaths.

Amazing. Science is a uniquely human invention. My dogs can also learn about the world around them. But they can’t communicate this knowledge to each other, much less build it up over generations.

Humans have been building science for millennia. The architects of Stonehenge in England five thousand years ago knew precisely where the sun would shine at the summer and winter solstice, and preserved that knowledge by transporting enormous stones weighing many tons more than a hundred miles before precisely placing them in a circle. We know much more now about the movements of the sun and earth, but we still haven’t figured out exactly what the Stonehengers were doing. A new scientific tool which can x-ray the deep underground may soon reveal their knowledge and motives.

All of the science I just described includes uncertainty. That goes beyond the so-called “uncertainty principle”, which says that it is not possible to measure with certainty both the position and the movement of tiny particles. The properties of the Higgs boson are not fully known, although its existence is necessary to confirm the theoretical model used by nearly all physicists to describe the atomic structure of the universe. Most astronomers believe that so-called “dark matter” includes most of the matter in the universe, but it has not been actually observed because it is invisible. The very ability of scientists to speculate about things which cannot be directly observed demonstrates the power of science to unravel the unbelievably large and small mysteries of our universe.

Nobody argues that the science of atomic particles or dark matter is a hoax. Nobody claims that the complex computer models needed in astrophysics are just guesswork. Nobody adds up the numbers of the world’s scientists who agree completely on the properties of the Higgs boson. Nobody convenes conferences of dissenting scientists or pseudo-scientists to argue alternative explanations of the observed phenomena. Nobody suggests that these remaining uncertainties demonstrate that physicists and astronomers don’t know what they are talking about.

There is nothing political about dark matter. Whether it makes up 23% or 27% of the total energy content of the universe doesn’t appear to interest American politicians. But as soon as we begin to discuss the earth’s climate, politicians suddenly have very definite scientific opinions. The same kind of scientific inquiry which has produced remarkable advances in our understanding of distant stars and tiny particles is suddenly unbelievable. Political leaders with high school science educations make pronouncements about the value of scientific research whose most basic features they don’t understand.

Why? Because climate science, unlike atomic science, has political implications. New studies show that the Middle East could become too hot for human habitation in this century. Across the world, 100 million people could be driven into extreme poverty by the increasing heat. If political decisions to change the way we produce and consume energy are not made soon, we will bequeath a deadly world to our descendants in two generations. And that prospect has turned some politicians into scientific geniuses.

Donald Trump says warming is a “hoax”. Ted Cruz says scientists are “cooking the books.” Ben Carson, who doesn’t believe in doing anything about climate change, says about scientists, “They are welcome to believe whatever they want to believe. I’m welcome to believe what I want to believe.”

That’s the whole point. Carson and other conservatives don’t want to believe that anything needs to be done about climate change, because it will be expensive and will involve government action. So they argue that science is just what they want to believe, what conveniently fits into their political ideology.

My dogs would make poor scientists, because they can be individual learners at best, unable to profit from the knowledge gained by other members of their species. But they are better scientists than Republican know-nothings, because they learn from the world around them without political filters and ideological blinders. They can’t work with computer models, but they recognize when someone is all wet.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 10, 2015

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