Measured Against Reality

Friday, October 27, 2006

Digging for Holes in Einstein

I’m in a class called, “Foundations of Modern Physics”, which is essentially an introduction to special relativity and quantum physics. It’s interesting material, and I could probably get a lot of posts from that alone.

But that’s not important. What I want to talk about now is my professor. Whenever he gets to a subject that he won’t take the time to prove, or a postulate that’s not entirely clear why it’s true, he makes a big point about not taking his word for it. He doesn’t say, “Well, Einstein said it was true, so it must be.” He tells you to examine the evidence for yourself; to make sure that the postulate is valid; to find places where the text (or his lecture) is glossing over something, or making bad assumptions; to look for holes in the material.

I think that is fantastic, because that’s how science is. You’re not just memorizing facts that other people have gathered. You’re looking at their evidence, seeing the conclusions they drew, and evaluating them for yourself. Much of the time (for older physics, at least) you can even do their experiments. Even the most advance fields are within reach to someone who’s determined.

And that is precisely why science works. Even if someone made up data, falsified conclusion, fabricated evidence, we’d find out. Eventually someone would look at their data and their conclusions and say “This doesn’t add up.” It’s very difficult to defraud scientists for very long.

Scientists don’t get everything right, either. Sometimes a theory has to be scrapped because of new evidence. But again, that’s the beauty of it. No conclusion is permanent, everything can be changed, as long as there’s evidence. Of course, this doesn’t mean that nothing can be proven, many theories are so accurate at predicting the world that any replacement would have to nearly fully include them (such as General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, or the Standard Model). The phrase that pops into my head to describe scientific proof is “Beyond a reasonable doubt”, although most theories are well beyond reasonable doubts.

Science may not be perfect, but as the shirt I’m wearing right now says, “It works, bitches.”

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