What Science Isn't

Opinion: Charles Krauthammer: The neutrino that rocked the universe

If quantum mechanics were a challenge to human sensibilities, this pesky Swiss-Italian neutrino is their undoing. It means that Einstein’s relativity — a theory of uncommon beauty upon which all of physics has been built for 100 years — is wrong. Not just inaccurate. Not just flawed. But deeply, fundamentally, indescribably wrong.

Sigh. Charles Krauthammer is deeply, fundamentally, (but possibly) describably wrong. This shows a very basic misunderstanding of the process of science — the same class of misunderstanding in which people than that popular opinion drives science, or that deciding on a truth and then looking for evidence to support it (and ignoring the contradictions) is science.

There are different kinds of wrong. The things that are deeply, fundamentally, indescribably wrong are flat-out abandoned. The luminiferous aether was fundamentally wrong — there is no preferred reference frame for the universe. Classical physics is wrong, too, but 1/2 mv^2 is still used as a formula for kinetic energy and it works as long as the speeds are much smaller than that of light. In another area of relativity we know that Newton’s law of gravitation is wrong as well, but it’s good enough to send spacecraft to the moon and other planets. This is science: we quantify wrong, and there’s a difference between not correct and there’s a discrepancy in the nth decimal place. Even if the neutrino data turns out to be correct, it will require a modification of relativity, not an abandonment of it. GPS signals — intimately dependent upon both gravitational and kinematic effects of relativity — are still be able to give you your location, something I checked empirically this past weekend. Relativity works in so many situations; it’s not wrong in that regard.

It would be exciting if this ends up being correct, but it will not end with us kicking relativity to the curb — it will give us new physics in addition to the physics we have, rather than instead of the physics we now have. Any new theory will look just like relativity under the situations we’ve already tested. Charles Krauthammer writes mainly about politics. He should stick to his day job.

3 thoughts on “What Science Isn't

  1. The talking head farted through his mouth – so stipulated. However, let us not be hasty in confining our distaste. Lisa Randall is touring the country hawking her new book with an hour of PowerPoint presentiton – to packed houses. The lady is brilliant and expectations run high…

    An early slide depicting scale descent, atom to quark, was astoundingly defective for displaying lithium-5 as the example atom. First, Li-5 is not radioactive or even bound – it is a resonance. Add a neutron for Li-6. Second, Li electronic configuration is 1s2 2s1. That is a spherical (s-orbital) inner shell containing two electrons plus a larger radius spherical shell containing one electron. Displayed orbital swirlies were wrong in 1926. It was not an overmuch interesting evening.

    It was doubly so not an interesting evening when all the happy talk omitted any mention of the empirical failure of said wonderful theory. Contemporary physics describing mass perfectly fails: No Higgs; No SUSY partners, proton decay, solar axions; observed muon g-2 vs. theory disparity, quantum gravitation/string theory jointly and severally are disasters, dark matter versus MOND Milgrom acceleration, matter-antimatter abundance unexplained…

    This sounds like Milton Friedman explaining Pinochet’s Chile.

    As you say, there are different degrees of “wrong.” Some can be trivially dismissed, others must be soberly addressed.

  2. Hmm, I would possibly go further than Charles Krauthammer, but not for the same reasons.

    I would say that all of science is wrong. Deeply, indescribably wrong — just a tiny bit less wrong than it was yesterday.

    It is this assumption which lies at the very heart of science. It’s predicated on the the idea that it’s wrong. Scientists dilligently poke and prod away at their theories to figure out how wrong they are.

    Every now and again we discover a way to be significantly less wrong than we were (such as the introduction of QM or relativity). Then we replace the main model we use to think about stuff. This doesn’t make the old model useless, sometimes it’s actually more useful.
    When I’m calculating the path light will take through glass, it’s continuous. I don’t need to think about the atoms.
    When the atoms are important, I include them — whether as classical hard little balls, or as wavefunctions.
    All of these things are wrong, but they are useful and wrong. For one of them we don’t know how it’s wrong yet, so we treat it as true for the little while until we discover how wrong it is.

    But it doesn’t matter how many times we replace our model of the universe; we’ll still be assuming the new theory is wrong. We’ll continue to poke and prod to find the holes or raggedy edges, and we’ll continue being ever so slightly less wrong than we were.

  3. Science is blind more than it is wrong. The blindness is caused by the lack of insight and inexperience of the scientist.

    Many scientists particularly on the areas of atomic physics are brilliant mathematicians but often this is where their strengths can end, in that they do not have the necessary knowledge and experience in other areas like electrical theory or astronomy to see the wider picture necessary to be able to put concepts into any clear perspective.

    For example sitting on a park bench on a peaceful sunny day it is hard to comprehend the colossal motion that every atom around you and within you is experiencing as we travel on our journey through the cosmos. We can put it another way. The house you live in exists on a cosmic express train that is travelling at close to 450 times faster than a high powered rifle bullet. Every atom of your very being is travelling up to 2,160,000,000 metres an hour or 600,000 metres per second through the cosmos.

    Because you don’t notice you are spinning on the surface of a planet that is also accelerating around a sun, which is also accelerating around our galaxy that also moves within the universe, does not mean it is not happening. We need to accept that the atom is very much aware that this is all happening and is internally physically structured to allow it to continue to happen. Hence we observe our stable cosmic motions and our stable atomic structures.

    The current three dimensional atomic model is a clear example of this scientific blindness in that whilst the atoms that make up that park bench are at the same time in cosmic motion, the atomic model used to describe them is oblivious to the impact the motion of the cosmic express train and completely ignores the electrical and magnetic impact it has on atomic functions.

    Don’t get me wrong there are some benefits occurring using the current atomic theory, but just consider how much better it will be for us when we finally grow up and take a more mature look at how science is working.

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