I recently had a conversation with a friend about science and religion. At some point of the conversation we were talking about the sun and I mentioned a few facts about the sun like it’s distance to us – 150 million kilometers, it’s mass 1.9891 *10^30KG and its surface temperature about 6000K. Memorizing astronomical figure is a hobby I picked up while in high school. The amount of fun is of astronomical proportions
Now my friend was quick to point out that no one has ever gone to the sun and thus knowing such things is impossible. That no one has ever used gone and placed a thermometer on the sun’s surface so knowing the temperature is impossible. And that it would be impossible to build let alone use a weighing scale to measure the sun’s mass. He insisted that scientists especially physicists just guess figures like that to achieve fame. Despite his minimal knowledge in astronomy, my oblivious friend was right about the fact that we haven’t landed on the sun yet. However, his traditional understanding of how stuff works limits his ability to perceive the wonders of science beyond photosynthesis and rain cycles.
Before the ruler was invented we used things like the length of our feet to measure distance. With more innovation and our evolving ways of thinking we have come up with even more sophisticated and accurate ways of measuring distance. A trip to the sun is no longer necessary just to know how long it is from over here to over there. We no longer need a thermometer to know its temperature or a weighing scale to know its mass. Instead we need just the right equations and a number cruncher.
Physics opens up the mind to a world of new possibilities. It changes our understanding of the universe and morphs the way we perceive reality. Isaac Newton’s laws of gravitation published in his epic Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica was probably the biggest scientific breakthrough of his time. It gave us a good description of planetary motion. But come Einstein the very definition of gravity changed from the pull between two bodies to the curvature of the space time continuum. Einstein looked at scientists in the eyes and said that the most celebrated scientist of all time was wrong. (Egoistic bastard Anyway,…) And while it’s only natural that most people would be skeptical at first, his theories of relativity became slowly accepted into mainstream science because the math was right. But Newton’s laws still remain practical in normal scenarios when dealing with low energy states. However for better accuracy and in extreme conditions Einstein’s more complicated equations have to be adopted. Even so, no one can say for certain that Einstein’s equations are absolutely right. As Stephen Hawking says in his book A Brief History of Time
“Any physical theory is only provisional in
the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove
it. No matter how many times the
results of experiments agree with some theory, you can
never be sure that the next time the result will not
contradict the theory.”
The idea that scientists make guesses to gain fame is therefore preposterous. It’s true that some scientists make publications without doing enough research or without conclusive results just to make headlines. But the 15 minutes only goes for 15 minutes since other scientists around the world try to repeat the experiments to confirm or disprove the theory. The case of Hwang Woo-suk the South Korean scientist who claimed in 2005 that he had created human stem-cells using cloned embryos from spinal cord injured patients is a good example. His supposed findings were published in scientific journals but it was soon found out that he had fabricated his experiments. Coming up with ideas that have to be accepted at face value has no place in science. It is more a reserve of religion; where nothing can be questioned. Science is all questions, and provisional answers.