Tag Archives: science

Living in a Medium-Size World

The human experience is limited by the range of our senses. We can only see, hear, touch, smell and taste so much. Our sensory input is the result of the world directly around us, and that is what we perceive as reality. Humans have evolved to intuitively deal with the medium-size world. Hidden from us are the microscopic realm and the large-scale universe. In addition, we are not well equipped to deal with things moving at light speed and extreme time scales (sometimes called deep time).

universe-telescopeTo a large extent modern science has advanced due to decoding the small-size world and the large-size world. The current picture of the universe is defined by technologies that probe realities beyond the human senses. Scientists have come to the realization that human intuition is deceptive in understanding how the universe works. For example: the behavior of atoms, the formation of stars and galaxies, the speed of light, and the evolutionary timeline. This creates a gap between knowledge and perception, which demands a stretch of imagination to bridge the gap. It may even be wise to expect that new scientific discoveries will be counter-intuitive, just like many significant discoveries from the past.

 Some People Can’t Go There

Why are some people able to digest objective scientific information, while others can’t get beyond their subjective experience? In other words, to expand our world view we need to look outside ourselves. An individual’s life experience is by far too small a sample size to make any meaningful conclusions, particularly when examining some of life’s big questions. There is tremendous variety in life experiences, both in time and geography.

Before modern science the earth was viewed as the center of existence; humans were the focal point of all life and the universe. Now the message is clear that humans occupy a planet that is a tiny part of a much grander scheme. Human life is also a brief existence in an epic evolutionary tale of innumerable life forms. An appreciation of the modern scientific view requires we look beyond our direct experience and consider a reality foreign to ourselves. It is a challenging mental and emotional exercise to honestly look at life from a truly universal perspective.

Albert Einstein was a revolutionary thinker and well-known for his thought experiments. It was by first imagining physical scenarios that he came up with his great insights. He is quoted as saying:

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” and “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

A Miss-Match Between Intuition and Reality

If we had to find candidates for the most influential and revolutionary scientific theory of all time, at a minimum the list would include: Newton, Darwin, Einstein and the quantum theory scientists. These three individuals and the group of scientists that formulated quantum theory have created the foundation of modern science. Newton’s ideas describe the physics of our everyday reality. Einstein worked out the precise laws of space, time and the large-scale universe. Quantum physics describes the atomic and subatomic realm. And Darwin’s theory of evolution is the cornerstone for studying all life.

quantum-universeAn interesting angle with these landmark ideas is that they are all counter-intuitive. These theories are defined by hidden realities that required great minds and creative techniques to uncover. It is not clear whether others could have come up with similar discoveries; however, I think that few thought along those lines. In the early years of science, knowledge of the world was limited to the human senses. The idea that to accurately describe our world required a leap beyond the sensory experience of the medium-size world must have been revolutionary. Today, scientists and philosophers have come to accept theories based on evidence, even if it goes against common sense.

Before Newton no one had considered that the same force was responsible for controlling the orbits of the planets and falling objects on earth. Space and time were believed to be absolute and unchanging before Einstein showed that they were flexible. Life was clearly designed by God (each species set apart in its present form) before Darwin unveiled the mechanism of natural selection as a powerful creator. And in several ways quantum theory is the most bizarre of scientific theories; For instance, even those that work with quantum mechanics can’t explain why light behaves as both a particle and a wave.

If these examples are too abstract for you, consider the deceptive everyday observation of the sun traveling across the sky. In medieval times it was thought to be heretical to suggest anything other than the sun moving around a stationary earth. And today, if we go by our senses alone we would reach the same conclusion. The earth moves, it spins and orbits the sun, but we don’t feel it. To take it a step further, if the sun actually orbited the earth, it would still look exactly the same. How many other things about our world do we get wrong by overlooking scientific facts? This could be due to ignorance, oversight, or possibly by over rating subjective experience.

Evolution is the Big One

charles-darwinDarwin clearly knew the implications of his theory of evolution; perhaps that is why he waited a couple of decades to publish. Evolution, properly understood, solved the great mystery of life’s propagation and overthrew centuries of beliefs. In terms of its philosophical implications, evolution is the most life-altering scientific idea. Yet, it is still not universally accepted or understood. If I was only exposed to one scientific idea, I would pick evolution; it has the farthest reach and most deeply influences us.

We don’t need to know how atoms work or how galaxies form to function in everyday life. Common sense and intuition will serve us well enough in most situations. Understanding evolution is debatable; I think it is very valuable in understanding human behavior and how our lives unfold (not to mention the natural world).

If we neglect thinking in evolutionary terms we can easily be led astray. Take for example the vibrant colors of flowers: We could assume that the flowers are meant for the enjoyment of human observers (designed for our benefit). But we are only bystanders, which have stumbled upon a deeper truth. The colorful flowers have attracted pollinators over long periods of time, allowing seeds to spread. Nature favors brightly colored flowers over duller colors, because they are more noticeable to birds and insects. Generation after generation the colorful flowers have the advantage. It is not about us, it’s about the insects and the flowers. Nevertheless, we are here and can still enjoy the flowers.

The point I am trying to make is that the deeper questions of our lives need a deeper view. We can’t tackle profound questions with the same reasoning that we use to bake a cake or change a tire; a leap of imagination is required. Although we can’t think about the mysteries of life and the universe all of the time, for those that are philosophically inclined, we cannot help but think about it some of the time. Be forewarned that surface impressions are usually not the whole story.

 

References: Brainy Quote, 2001-2016. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/a/albert_einstein.html


 

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Is Anything Possible?

You’ve heard it before: ‘anything is possible.’ I have also, but how much truth is there in this statement? On the surface it sounds OK; it’s usually used in a positive tone (but not always) and it’s open to seemingly unlimited possibilities. What could be wrong with that? Hold on just a minute until we look a little deeper.

highway-at-nightIs anything really possible? And can we determine when something becomes impossible? If a person losses a hand, it won’t grow back. A conventional air plane will not fly without wings. Pure water will not freeze if the temperature is above 0 degrees Celsius. So there you have it, anything is not possible. I don’t think this is a big revelation. People who say that ‘anything is possible’ know that it isn’t true. So why do they say it? We all go through life with insufficient knowledge, it’s just part of being human. I believe what people are really thinking is: many things are possible, or they don’t know what’s possible.

Nature’s Regularities

‘I don’t know what’s possible’ doesn’t sound quite as positive as ‘anything is possible.’ So maybe that’s why the word anything is so often used. Despite our limited knowledge, there lies one fundamental truth which determines what is possible and what isn’t. This truth is related to the following question: What does the loss of a hand, an airplane not being able to fly and water not freezing have in common? On the surface they seem totally unrelated; however, they share a subtle and profound relationship. I’ll get back to this later but first a little back ground.

There are reasons why some things are possible and others impossible and they are fundamentally the same reasons. It has to do with the way the world works (in fact the entire universe). There exist regularities in nature, both seen and unseen. Some of these regularities would have been known in ancient times simply by observing nature. For example, the ancients were aware of the conditions needed to make fire and how to put it out. They learned how to grow food by observing how crops responded to the seasons and so on. Early humans had a rudimentary understanding of what might be possible. They achieved this with varying degrees of success by observing nature’s regularities. However, they lacked an appreciation of what was behind the observed regularities. A deeper understanding would come about later.

The Scientific Revolution of the 15th and 16th hundreds is the unofficial line of demarcation of modern science. This is when scientists began deciphering the laws that govern nature. The laws of nature are fundamental to the regularities we observe. For the first time nature could be explained by a series of scientific laws rather than superstition, conjecture or a few rules of thumb. For instance, seen phenomena such as the motion of objects were explained by Newton’s laws of motion. Perhaps even more ground breaking is that eventually parts of the unseen world could also be explained by scientific laws. For Example, quantum laws of the early 19th hundreds, of which several scientists were involved, explained the workings of atomic and sub-atomic particles.

Out of the Ordinary

In everyday experience people often use the ‘anything is possible’ line as a positive projection into the future. They are usually thinking about the trajectory of one’s life and the numerous untapped possibilities. In this context they are referring to ordinary events in human affairs. Ordinary in the sense that one doesn’t had to believe in anything outside the established laws of nature to account for what might unfold.

ghostSome people consider other ideas, which fall into a totally different category. These ideas are sometimes called paranormal or supernatural, but personally I dislike both those terms. The reason being, that some of these concepts diminish the established laws of nature. The simplest way I can convey what kind of ideas I mean is to begin with a list. The following is just from the top of my head and much more could apply: alien visitations, ghost stories, miraculous healings, near-death experiences, psychic readings and so on. With this list, one should ask: how do the laws of nature fit in these schemes?

Let’s look into one of the possibilities listed above. With alien visitations for instance, one has to consider such things as a life-sustaining planet and the distance the aliens would have to travel. A little understanding of the laws of nature can give us clues as to how seriously we should consider a claim. We know that other than Earth, there is no complex life in our Solar System. So our star system is out.

The nearest star system is a three star system call Alpha Centauri, of which Proxima is the closest (about 4.24 light years away). On the surface this doesn’t sound all that far away. However, if we consider present technologies, it would take anywhere from 19,000 to 76,000 years to make the trip. The wide range in estimates has to do with which technologies would ultimately prove viable for such a trip. We should also consider the possibility that the proposed aliens would have to come from much farther away.

rocketIn short, in an absolute best case scenario, there would have to exist a life-sustaining planet where intelligent life evolved and its inhabitants developed far superior technology. Not an impossibility, but a long shot. The determining factor is the limits imposed by the laws of physics. The limits in this case are distance and how fast a spaceship can travel. Keep in mind that no matter how advanced a technology may be it cannot overcome the laws of physics. Considering the distances involved, it seems unlikely that we have been visited by aliens.

Pure and Simple

Now back to my earlier question: about the loss of a hand, an airplane unable to fly and water not freezing. All three are determined by the laws of nature; specifically, the limits of biology, physics and chemistry. And that’s not only true for these three scenarios but for any proposed idea. That’s right, any proposed idea. That being said, it needs to be mentioned that our understanding of the laws of nature are likely incomplete and currently serve as our best representation of reality. Nevertheless, whether we are talking about everyday experience or the fantastic, the laws of nature run the show. Whether the answer lies within the scope of our knowledge or not; it all boils down to one simple truth: anything which is in principle allowed by the laws of nature is possible and anything which is not allowed by the laws of nature is impossible!

 

References: Universe Today, How Long Would it Take to Travel to the Nearest Star?, Sept 6, 2016 by Matt Williams. http://www.universetoday.com/15403/how-long-would-it-take-to-travel-to-the-nearest-star/


 

From Superstition and Myth to Scientific Explanations

Modern humans (Homo sapiens) have walked the earth anywhere from about 150,000 to 200,000 years. The span in years depends on the definition one uses to classify modern humans. By the way, the term Homo sapiens comes from Latin meaning wise man. Despite the distinction of wise man, human progress was slow in ancient times as compared to the last few centuries. Of course there were some discoveries and innovations through the years. One can imagine the development of stone tools, improved hunting techniques, agricultural advancements and other rudimentary progress. However, humans would only live up to their Latin name when they were able to find explanations for the natural world.

Bad Explanations

The ancients almost certainly desired a better way of life, for themselves and their children. They would have wanted to know more about the world. Why do crops fail? How does disease come about? Is the water safe to drink? In ancient times questions of this kind could not be answered with any degree of certainty. Of course they tried to find adequate answers, but for the most part failed in doing so.

Without the ability to decipher the intricacies of nature, ancient societies often turned to superstition and myth for answers. This method would have provided explanations for a number of mysterious happenings. However, they would have been mostly bad explanations because their approach was flawed from the start. Why were they so prone to such explanations? For starters, without an established scientific method in place, they would have relied on their senses to a large extent. This was probably quite adequate for what could easily be observed. But when it came to the unseen world they were mostly at a loss.

The Birth of Superstition

Michael Shermer, editor in chief of Skeptic magazine, offers an interesting explanation as to how superstition creeps in the human psyche. It goes something like this: Imagine that you are a Hominid (a distant human ancestor)  living in the African Savanna about 3.5 million years ago and you here a rustle in the grass. Are you better off to assume it’s a dangerous predator or just the wind? If you think it’s a predator and it turns out to be just the wind, then there is no harm done. If you think it’s the wind and it really is a predator, then you may become lunch. Natural selection would have been more likely to select individuals that tended to assume that mysterious noises might be predators. To remain safe in this environment it was best to assume the worst, rather than take the time to investigate.

What is the difference between a dangerous predator and the wind? A predator has intentions, it is looking for food and you may become its target, whereas the wind is an inanimate force. The wind has no concerns for you whatsoever. In the fore mentioned scenario, assuming that mysterious noises have intentions is a survival trait. We are descended from primates which would have been more likely to assume intent, whether it was real or not. And that is just fine for everyday life in the Savanna. It only becomes a problem when this principle is applied to a wider range of unknown phenomenon. When a host of natural occurrences, not well understood, are perceived to have intentions then we have superstition. When these intentions are personified, then they may become part of myth.

A Way Out

We are perhaps hard-wired by evolution to make snap decisions and assumptions in certain situations. However, most of us no longer live with immediate dangers at hand. Science is the best remedy to what ailed our ancient ancestors. We no longer require superstition in our lives, because we now have better explanations (real explanations).

The scientific revolution that swept Europe in the late 1500s to the 1700s is referred to the beginning of modern science. Men like Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo, Isaac Newton and many others led the way to a deeper understanding of nature. From that point on human progress would happen at a much faster rate. The Scientific Method (the catalyst for progress) had at long last been discovered.

The Scientific Method

beakerWhat is the best way to know how something works? A good place to start is with a well thought out question. And then we can proceed in looking for the answer. The scientific method could be described as the process between the question and the answer. Science arrives at answers by observation and experimentation. Scientists can make predictions that nature will behave in a certain way based on observation (known as a hypothesis). Then the experiments will either confirm or disprove the original hypothesis. If the hypothesis is verified then it becomes a theory. The theory is then subjected to analysis by other scientists, and if it holds up, it becomes accepted as scientific knowledge.

The knowledge base is still subject to being altered or expanded on by more complete explanations, but by similar methods in which it was first discovered. The book is never completely closed; however, by now we are far along in the process and many explanations about nature are unlikely to change significantly. Scientific knowledge exists on its own merit, not because of traditions or the word of authorities. In fact, it can be said that there are no scientific authorities.

The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (better known as the Royal Society) was founded in 1660. It is a fellowship of some of the world’s finest scientists and is perhaps the oldest scientific academy in existence. Its motto reads in Latin Nillius in Verba, translated in English to mean “On the word of no one” or “take nobody’s word for it.” I would say, don’t blindly trust authority or people of stature and see for yourself.

Progress 

It can be debated as to what constitutes progress, but there can be little doubt that modern science is a significant contributor. In the developed world we live more comfortably than previous generations; with conveniences that ancient societies could not have imagined. This is largely due to the scientific endeavor.

AtomWe now know about microorganisms and their role in disease and infection. We have a greater understanding of weather systems and can reasonably predict their effects. The discovery of electricity has eased our way of life significantly. The unlocking of the atom has made possible a multitude of information technologies. This is but a sample of what scientific discovery means for us.

Beyond the practical aspects we can’t ignore what science offers in terms of explanations. For instance, the ancients did not have a natural explanation for a solar eclipse. Some cultures believed that the sun was being devoured by a celestial dragon or some other creature. It was common for people to join together and bang on pots and pans, and make noise in order to frighten the beasts in the sky. Of course in due time the sunlight would return, reinforcing a false pattern.

We now understand that a solar eclipse is caused by the moon’s position obscuring the sun. No celestial creatures are required for an explanation and no amount for pot banging makes any difference. Today there are numerous things we can know about reality that are mostly taken for granted. However, our experience is greatly enhanced by the efforts of past and present scientists. We truly live in a special time, because for the most part, science has supplanted superstition.

 

References: Best of Michael Shermer Amazing Arguments And Clever Comebacks Part One, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQ8gasKQEWM, May 7, 2014.

David Deutsch: A new way to explain explanation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=folTvNDL08A, Oct 26, 2009.


 

A Special Time

This blog site was inspired by our book, The Landscape of Reality (Nov. 18, 2014). The blog is an offshoot or extension from some of the themes in the book. The blog will focus on creative ideas and concepts from science, nature and philosophy. All with the intent of providing a perspective of life that is in line with the physical and natural world. The content will be tailored for a general audience. I define the three fields in the following manner:

  • Science is about a factual and logical understanding of the world and the universe. The foundation of science is verifiable evidence.
  • Nature is more closely associated to living things and how we experience the world, but not exclusively. One could also view nature as the source, and science as the field of study.
  • Philosophy is about how we think and apply the concepts, what it means for us.

 Why a Special Time?

In all of human history, no time compares to the last century in terms of change and increased knowledge. Aside from advancements in science that have eased many of life’s burdens, new and exciting discoveries are revealing the universe’s true colors. The scientific endeavor has uncovered explanations of our world and beyond, which call to question long-held beliefs. We, as individuals and as a species, have the opportunity to understand the nature of our existence in ways that past generations could not have imagined.

Galaxy Cluster

Galaxy Cluster

Lawrence M. Krauss and Bob Scherrer wrote concerning the picture of the large-scale universe:

“We live at a very special time…the only time when we can observationally verify that we live at a very special time!”

There is an intriguing implication behind this quote. According to Krauss, due to the expansion of the universe, galaxies will get increasingly farther apart. At some point in the far future, galaxies will become so isolated that all evidence of the cosmological picture of the universe will disappear. From any galaxy, potential observers will not detect anything beyond their own galaxy. They will arrive at the conclusion that the universe consists of only a single galaxy (the same view that people had before the last century), and they will be completely wrong.

 A Drastic Change of Perspective

  • Before the last century: The earth was viewed as part of a solar system, within a collection of stars (there were no known planets outside our solar system). All stars were contained within a single galaxy of a static universe.
  • After the last century: The earth is now known to be located on the outer edge of an ordinary galaxy (hundreds of planets outside our solar system have been discovered). The Milky Way is part of a huge conglomerate of billions of galaxies within an expanding universe.

 A Philosophical Angle

Before the development of modern science, natural philosophy was the term used to describe the study of nature and the physical universe. In this sense, science emerged out of philosophy. The critical difference that allowed science to branch out from philosophy was the requirement that science relied on experimentation to acquire knowledge. Still, the two have been closely linked for a long time.

In the early period of science the focus was on uncovering the laws that governed nature. The application of science came later as mankind learned they could manipulate nature for their own benefit. Now the applied sciences seem to have captured the imagination of the general population. Technologies of every kind are dominating our lives. But I caution that an opportunity to fully appreciate and understand the laws of nature is being missed. And that our excesses from modernization are growing faster than our ability to monitor the changes to our planet and ourselves.

Nevertheless, it is clear that science cannot be viewed solely as an applied field. The current scientific picture has philosophical implications as well. Learning about science can be an intellectual pursuit that has the power to enrich our lives at a philosophical and emotional level. The time is ripe for making science accessible and meaningful to the general population. Explanations from different areas of science are now merging well together, and form a view of reality that is utterly fascinating and awe-inspiring. Those are the feelings I hope to convey in the blog posts that will follow.

Ray of Sunlight

 

References: Lawrence M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012)