Saturday, 28 July 2012

What Are You Trying To Prove?

If you've read my novel "The Sandboy", you'll know that astronomy was one of the first loves of my life. It got hold of me when I was a kid and has never really let go. I still own a telescope, and I still point it at the sky. I know what Brian Cox is on about when he talks about a "sense of wonder."

No matter what you do after studying science, it leaves a mark on you. One of the marks science left on me was impatience with people who pontificate about science without having any idea of what it is. So here is a short work of reference to settle the matter once and for all.

What science is: it is a method of accumulating a consistent body of information about the way the universe works. It doesn't prove right ideas right, but it does disprove wrong ideas wrong. It isn't some kind of religion, or something that has deliberately set itself up against religion, it's just a way of shining a light on the world and consigning descriptions that can be shown to be inaccurate to the waste basket of history.

So how does science actually work?

Surprisingly simple, really. You think up an idea, say, about the shape of the earth: "The earth is flat." Then you try to collect evidence showing that proposition is false: e.g. ships at sea seem to vanish hull first, and new stars appear in the sky when you travel south from Alexandria. (Neither of these observations fits well with the original idea of flatness.) Then you try to come up with a new idea that does fit the observations. It could be that: "The earth is a sphere."

You then just repeat the process over and again, slowly refining the idea each time and getting an increasingly accurate picture of the shape of the earth. Bingo!

But what if your new idea had been: "The earth is a cube"? Well, then that would have created another set of difficulties that clashed with subsequent observations and so enabled this erroneous idea to be done away with too.

By the way, the earth isn't exactly a sphere. Since it rotates, it takes up the shape of an oblate spheroid, i.e. one flattened at the poles and distended at the equator. Even that isn't the most refined description to date: the earth is no more uniform inside than it is outside. In addition, it has a magnetic field and a large satellite pulling on it gravitationally as well as a non-circular orbit around the sun which affects the strength of the gravity field that the Eath experiences. So Earth's shape is altering just a little bit all the time.

The process we call science has over the last 400 years or so addressed countless ideas like this, so that now we have a large body of refined information, and that makes it possible for technologists and engineers to produce helpful items like computer chips and GPS units and medical scanners and all the other good stuff that makes life less miserable, brutish and short.

So let's hear it for science!

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