Sunday, November 21, 2010

Life Lines 45


Not all science is logical, matches our common sense or experiences, or makes us comfortable. Evolution by natural selection creates an order out of chance mutations that are sifted by largely unpredictable environments organisms encounter throughout their lives. The size of atomic particles is minuscule compared to the size of an atom and this means that solid matter is mostly empty space. We find it strange that light can both be shown to produce wavelengths and at the same time to consist of photons, having enough mass to bend when passing the sun during an eclipse. We find the idea of quantum mechanics virtually opaque to our experience and cannot comprehend why an electron can be only in one level or another and not in between levels or why we can study the motion but not the location of an atomic particle. Science is not easy to master and it is difficult to learn enough science to feel comfortable talking about it because it requires a lot of time to build one concept on top of another. The terms used by science have fairly defined meanings and scientists will gladly spell those out. But the names often given have a misleading implication in popular thinking. The uncertainty principle about velocity and location of an atomic particle makes some people think life is uncertain and nothing is knowable. Relativity of motion becomes relativity of values in people’s minds. Quantum movements where particles can be suddenly shifted without apparent motion or cause is interpreted as humans passing through brick walls if they live long enough to experience such a quantum event (probably measured as once in many quadrillions of years or more). If the Copernican revolution is a paradigm shift (in which the relations and names of things is reassigned) some people jump to the conclusion that everything new in science is a paradigm shift.

Why does this confusion take place? I believe most of us have fantasies of controlling our lives more than nature allows us to do so. If we learn that telomere shortening leads to cell death we imagine that all we have to do to be immortal is prevent telomere shortening. If we learn the speed of light is a constant, we imagine traveling faster than the speed of light. If a person dies we imagine there are people somewhere who will communicate with the dead (no spiritualist has won the Amazing Randi’s million dollar award for demonstrating this to professional magicians). We want to believe that our birthdays have significance in a cosmic sense and we vaguely assign characteristics of our personality to our birth dates or to the location of planets in the night sky. If we win very large sums of money in a lottery or win on many occasions when gambling we assume we possess a quality called luck. If a new mathematical approach to complex problems uses “fuzzy logic” we think all problems we can’t handle can be solved by using fuzzy logic (with more fuzz than logic). Belief in the supernatural, whether religious or involving superstitions (broken mirrors, black cats, walking under ladders), requires some sort of faith. Science cannot provide support for them. But by our own bad logic we like to equate such faith in the supernatural with a scientist’s faith that there are laws of the universe that can be studied and which are constant or the scientist’s faith that science is worth doing. The scientist has to demonstrate the validity of new findings and most scientists can show abundant evidence that science is worth doing. Most of those who indulge in sloppy interpretations of science will reveal their insecurity: they seek medical science, not faith healing, when they are seriously ill.

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