Friday, June 04, 2004

The Spirit of Science

The Spirit of Science

The late astronomer Carl Sagan, in his book Cosmos, lay down two simple rules which the practice of science abides by:

1. There are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined
2. Whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised

These rules sound like common sense and their application can certainly be extended beyond domains of science. The true scientist, no matter how passionate he or she is about certain theories, must discard them if they prove to be contrary to the facts. Scientists as human beings, could be passionate and dogmatic, but the practice of science is a dispassionate one. And therein lies its greatest strength.

Even after a theory appears to be almost a hundred percent consistent with the facts it is still not considered an absolute truth. They are only true insofar as the observations conducted have indicated. All so-called "laws of nature" derived from the practice of science are not sacred truths--only theories.

The best example is Newtonian mechanics. All the machines of the industrial revolution were based on Newtonian mechanics. They work so well and for centuries no one thought that they could be flawed.

Only when Einstein came up with the Special Theory of Relativity, did we realise that Newton's Laws of Motion were based on foundations that were mere approximations--good enough for our everyday world involving bodies with relatively small masses (compared to planets and stars) and travelling at very low velocities (relative to that of light). We don't need to use relativity theory to design Michael Schumacher's Formula 1 car. Newtonian mechanics will do just fine.

Though many predictions from Einstein's theories have been verified by experiments, scientists are still not satisfied. That is why Nasa recently launched a probe to conduct measurements to further test predictions from Einstein's General Theory of Relativity--which claims that space and and time are distored by the presence of massive objects.

My early training in science influenced my view of life and the world greatly. I've always assumed that nothing is ever absolutely correct. We can have faith and be passionate about certain things; but we must accept that we could be completely wrong. If we are wrong, we must stand to be corrected. Science, by definition, has no dogmas and it is always self-correcting.

A lot of the problems in this world are caused by people who think that they are absolutely right. If we are able to adopt a more scientific attitude towards things, we'll have a much kinder and gentler world.

To me, a good education in science is the best moral grounding one could have. We are all fellow scientists. Life is just a series of experiments which we conduct based on certain hypotheses. Along the way, we try to fine-tune them.

We all behave the way we do because we have formulated certain views about life based on our own personal experiences. What someone finds true for his universe may not be true for other people.

Our worldviews are merely hypotheses--convenient assumptions which we take on so that we can move forward. Without hypotheses, we cannot start doing anything. But we must always be aware of the fact that these hypotheses could be absolutely wrong.

A true scientist never fear being wrong. Any result from an experiment is a good result, for it helps to narrow down the possibilities. To quote Thomas Alva Edison: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work".

That is the true spirit of science.

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