Friday, January 21, 2011

something to crow about

It took scientists the better part of the twentieth century to fully develop the mathematics for describing such quantum activity of the electromagnetic, and strong and weak nuclear forces. The effort was well spent: calculations using this mathematical framework agree with experimental findings to an unparalleled precision [eg calculations of the effect of vacuum fluctuations on the magnetic properties of electrons agree with experimental results to one part in a billion].
Brian Greene, The fabric of the cosmos 

In my internet to-ings and fro-ings I recently came across a piece from 1991, written by a creationist, warning a Catholic educational institution of the dangers of having invited that apostle of scientism, Carl Sagan, to speak at a seminar or conference. It was interesting to me that the term was being used twenty years ago, and of course it was also interesting to note who was using it. All of this relates to a recent post in which I noted the term 'parascience', apparently used by Marilynne Robinson to indicate the prideful stories scientists tell each other to keep up morale. The implication seemed to be [nay, more than seems] that science was generally getting too big for its boots and becoming tediously self-important.
The thing is that too many non-science, and genuinely anti-science people have willfully cut themselves off from the extraordinary advances that have been made. There is really a lot to crow about, and the results are so self-evident that little propaganda is required, all that's needed is a clear statement of the facts. Take this little piece from the latest issue of Cosmos magazine, accompanying a tech-blue photo of the installation:
Housed within a 10 storey, 70,000 square metre building, the US National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California, is the biggest and highest-energy laser in the world, designed to produce limitless, self-sustaining energy. On 8 October 2010, all of its 192 giant lasers were combined to form a single beam - 10 billion times stronger than an average household light bulb - and sent through almost 1.6 kms of lenses, mirrors and amplifiers into a fingernail-sized capsule filled with hydrogen fuel. The reaction delivered an explosion of neutrons so powerful it produced a tiny man-made star.   
Now think of a nineteenth century technogeek reading this. What would impress her most? Well, there would be the Big Numbers - a 10 storey building just to house some piece of techno wizardry? Wow. 10 billion times the average household light bulb? Sounds impressive, but it wouldn't mean much to someone of the nineteenth century, as there was no such thing as an average household light bulb then. Patents had been taken out throughout the second half of the nineteenth century for various kinds of incandescent bulbs, but mass-produced, standardised globes were very much a thing of the future. And 1.6 kilometres of lenses, mirrors and amplifiers - hard to conceive in the nineteenth century, even for a science nerd.
Two words would also completely discombobulate such a nerd - laser and neutron. The laser might well rank as the most powerful technological development of the twentieth century. There's lots of competition of course, but the laser is right up there. And like so many modern developments in physics, technological or theoretical, its development can be traced back to Einstein, who wrote a paper in 1917, 'On the quantum theory of radiation', which conceived of probability coefficients, since known as Einstein coefficients, for the absorption, spontaneous emission and stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation. Such an invention was inconceivable of course without the revolutionary developments in quantum mechanics of the early twentieth century. As for neutrons, their existence wasn't confirmed until the 1930s, some ten years after they were theorized by Ernest Rutherford.
All of this new knowledge and these new developments are combining in experiments which actually reproduce the activity inside stars, an activity about which nothing was even known in the nineteenth century. A nineteenth century geek would be totally flabbergasted.
The general point I'm making is captured largely in the quotation at the top of this post. Quantum mechanics and relativity have transformed our understanding of the physical world more comprehensively than any other scientific developments in human history. Not enough people fully understand the monumental achievement of these developments, together with the massive advances made in our understanding of the living world, from the theory of natural selection through to molecular biology and genetics. The theories underpinning these developments have been experimentally confirmed to the nth degree, and they present a complex and comprehensive account undreamed of in previous centuries. I don't deny that there can be such a thing as scientific hubris and triumphalism, but even if it isn't always justified it's surely understandable, and the fact is that many of those most critical of science, those most loudly bemoaning such supposed triumphalism, are in denial, or are just plain ignorant, of the giant strides we've made.

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