Monday, September 21, 2009

Talking the Talk of Science

Common sense, as discussed here some time ago, is a tool we use in everyday life to sort out our surroundings. But it evolved to solve certain problems arising in the everyday experience of cavemen, or hunter-gatherers. Science takes us far from that realm of experience and so, common sense is not to be trusted if one wants to understand the world scientifically.

Scientists have common sense too, but they learn not to rely too much on it.

Speaking of which I am reminded of another tool for everyday life that cannot be applied unchanged to science --language. Languages, like common sense, developed in the “normal” world of everyday experience. Guided by our limited perception, we invented concepts like “light” and “sound,” and gave them special names We created words for everything we could see, hear, or otherwise perceive. We named what we could imagine. But our imagination rarely creates something new. It only puts together existing conceptual elements, however artfully. Our mental constructs are not unlike Frankenstein’s monster.

In the relatively recent past science and technology have revealed that what we call light is only a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum, the part that our eyes can see; and what we call sound is only the range of pressure wave frequencies that our ears can detect. We now use these words for light that cannot be seen and sound that cannot be heard. When confronted with new scientific developments, everyday language is forced to either stretch the meaning of extant words, or create new words by agglutination. The term electromagnetic is a case in point. Like the concept it labels, it is the result of putting together “electric” and “magnetic.” Now elektron is Greek for amber. When rubbed with a piece of cloth, amber has the strange property of attracting small objects placed nearby. This property we call electricity. Magnetism is the property of the lodestone, a material also known as magnetite after the ancient Greek city of Magnesia. The word electromagnetic is a Frankenstein monster assembled with parts of other Frankenstein monsters.

There is yet another typical reaction of language to new developments, and that is not to react at all. We have known that the earth spins on its axis these four hundred years. Yet we still say that the sun rises and that the sun sets.

So, not surprisingly, scientific language sometimes clashes with the rules of “good” English (or “good” Spanish). A scientist friend of mine was recently asked by a Spanish teacher to write a short text as an example of scientific language for a book she was writing. My friend complied, and soon got back a “corrected” version (corrupted is more like it) of his text from the teacher. She objected to his use of the phrase “almost constant.” She argued that being constant is not a matter of degree --either you are or you’re not. She is right, of course, but as my friend points out, the meaning of this phrase is self-explanatory, and to say the same thing in pristine Castillian Spanish would require a lengthy circumlocution. Scientists often don’t have time or space for such niceties. (Which is not to say, I hasten to add, that they should not try to write good Spanish or good English whenever possible.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tempted into Censorship

I remember once doing a reprehensible thing. I remember doing many reprehensible things, but this one is related to my being a scientist and priding myself, perhaps in a self-congratulatory and delusional way, in being a lover of the “truth,” whatever that may mean.

I was browsing around in the science section of a bookstore in Mexico City. The science section of Mexico City bookstores can be quite bewildering because bookstore owners have a very dim idea of what the term “science” means (witness the book department in any Sanborn’s store, where bona fide science consorts promiscuously with astrology, UFO-abductee accounts, and New Age self-help pap.) Next to some physics textbooks I found a little tome. I don´t remember the title or who the author was. I just remember that it was an enraged accusation of physicists and their strange ideas about relativity. The author, obviously a crank, was not comfortable with the notion that someone might know for a fact something he did not understand. A little training in math and physics shows relativity to be a logical necessity despite its weird predictions (which, by the way, are perfectly established by experiment), but this the author did not know and did not bother to find out. Too much trouble. Instead, he just ranted and raved and argued nonsensically against the special theory of relativity --whithout a single equation.

Now, this is what I did: I pushed the little volume all the way back in its shelf, effectively hiding it from view for the rest of time.

Later it dawned on me what I had really done. I had tried to suppress an idea --an act of censorship. Censorship, of course, is what people do who are not sure they are right. Totalitarian states do it, and the Inquisition did it. It is the weapon of the liar and the usurper, the corrupt and the power-hungry. Censorship, as opposed to argument, is contrary to the search for truth. I don´t mean to say that censorship is unheard-of in science, because it most certainly is not. Scientists are human and subject to human passions. But science has an advantage over political or religious systems of belief, where censorship is common --that its criteria for truth or falseness are clear, and shared by most scientists (the criteria include reproducibility of results and consistency of explanations, among others). The best way to challenge ideas is with ideas. My deed, although inspired by the noblest sentiments (as I’m sure the author of the little book is convinced his own deeds are), was reprehensible and childish.

And then again... The author wasn´t there for me to argue with. With the mass media gone over to the cranks, scientists are reduced to guerrilla tactics. We can´t speak out as they can, and most scientists will not upset their schedules to take part in the war effort. What could I do? I was feeling frustrated. (And please don´t go telling me that maybe so were Hitler, Stalin and Torquemada.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Minds of Cranks

(I wrote this piece in 1997, but much of its content still holds, so here it is)

My friend Miguel Alcubierre is a researcher at the Max Planck Institut für Gravitantionsphysik, in Germany. Several years back he wrote a brief paper showing that, contrary to widespread belief, it is possible to travel faster than light without infringing the laws of relativity. The paper brought him some notoriety among physicists and sci-fi buffs, but particularly among scientific cranks. One of the chief aims of every self-respecting crank is to debunk the theory of relativity (and, of course, evolution). Miguel gets e-mail from the crackpot fringe on a regular basis. He says he has no time for them, so I asked him to forward them to me.

Scientific cranks are not just any kind of crank. They are usually curious and hard-working, sometimes even bright, and without exception completely innocent of the methods of science. Many cranks, I believe, are the possessors of scientific minds gone stale for lack of rigorous training. They believe that all that rings true to them must actually be true, and they cling fiercely to their prejudices. They are absolutely confident that all that glitters must be gold. Cranks think hard and come up with ideas, like scientists; but unlike true scientists they have an unrelenting faith in common sense.

Unfortunately for them, common sense --that invaluable aid in everyday life-- has proven a very poor guide for scientific discovery. As early as the sixth century BC, the Greek philosopher Parmenides attacked common sense, calling it “that heart devoid of the tremor of truth.” Syrian-born historian Ikram Antaki writes: “Common sense is the locus of our prejudices, where thought is reduced to its inertia (...) it provides ready-made answers; it inhibits and conditions our reflexes; it fabricates and channels our reactions (...) (common sense) is like the minimum wage of intelligence.” The investigation of the natural world has produced countless results that challenge common sense. Who would have thought, before Einstein, that an object’s mass increased as it moved faster? Or that it is possible to slow down time by moving at great speed? Still, these strange ideas are true in the sense that every experiment to test them has yielded positive results.

Why is common sense so unreliable in science? Common sense was a faithful guide to our forebears for thousands of years. We evolved it as a response to the world as perceived by our senses. But our senses are limited. Our eyes, for example, are sensitive to only a tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. There are many more kinds of light than we perceive. The same applies to our hearing. We detect sound only in a limited range of frequencies. We should expect, then, that common sense is valid only in the realm of everyday experience. Scientific inquiry, however, routinely takes its partisans far from everyday experience. The physics of atoms seems very unnatural, but that is because our idea of what’s natural was forged among objects trillions of times larger than individual atoms. And the physics of objects moving at close to the speed of light is extremely weird, but then again, we don’t usually encounter such speeds on the Periferico.

Miguel’s cranks write with disarming confidence. In a way, I envy them. Their zeal and even their venom come from the certainty of being right. I wish I could be that certain of being right just once. But I guess I’m too far gone down a path where simple certainties dissolve. Don’t pity me, however. My simple certainties have dissolved into endless wonderment, and I think I know which one is best.