Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Science, Progress, and Knowledge.

Science isn't black and white right and wrong. Some ideas are better than other ideas in that they accurately explain more facts than the other idea.

For example if you look at the Aristotelian idea of gravity that objects have a desired location and hard objects like the earth are attracted to the earth, just as gassy substances are of the heavens and attracted to the heavens. This idea isn't absolutely completely 100% wrong. It's only mostly wrong. It makes proper predictions about things and explains much of the data we see before us.

Newton came along building on some of the work of Galileo and properly explained gravity as a force of attraction between all matter. That not only does the gravity make the apple fall, but it makes the worlds revolve. He showed that gravity is a universal force, Newtonian physics. Newton worked with expert precision and records were kept in exacting detail.

Then Einstein came and offered a new insight into gravity by way of the relative nature of the speed of light. He offered that gravity was actually a warping of spacetime and that gravity itself works by changing the fabric of space. This would also result in a slowing down of time itself near a gravity well. This was particularly important because those records of Newtonian movements I mentioned, were slightly off. Mercury needed to be adjusted because it was running a little bit slow. Einstein explained all the motions of the planets just as Newton did, but also explained the slight error with mercury. He explained how gravity worked and why it worked.

Now, did Newton contradict Aristotle? The general observation that gravity existed had been made and Aristotle gave an explanation. It wasn't a useful observation though and we don't use Aristotelian physics. Newton explained a lot. In fact, he gave us the first complete set of laws of gravity. School children still learn about Newton and use the same equations he laid out hundreds of years ago.

Now did Einstein contradict Newton? Einstein's physics are better. They explain more. They work when things are really heavy and really fast. Are they contradictory? Not really. Einstein's theory is built under the understanding of Newton. In fact, you can derive Newton's formulas from Einstein's. It isn't so much that Newton was wrong and Einstein was right, it's that Einstein is less wrong than Newton, and Newton is less wrong than Aristotle.

Science isn't black and white. Rather science as it progresses doesn't contradict the scientists who came before but improves on their ideas and propose their own theories which are less wrong than the ones which came before. They build on one another improving our understanding. When some bit of long standing science gets dinked and exceptions are found, it isn't a loss for science, it's a triumph.

The other day a group of scientists released findings of an effect called colossal magnetoresistence which seems to be 1000 times stronger than giant magnetoresistence. We don't understand the physics. We use giant magnetoresistence in hard drives to make them hold terabytes of data and stay very small. The discoverers were given the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2007. And colossal magnetoresistence offer the prospects of significantly smaller drives, but we even have our first slightly wrong theory. -- We just don't know.

Science isn't a bunch of contradictory ideas, it's the process of discovery itself. It isn't that the old ideas are wrong or that one person wins or another loses. It is that we progress in our understanding, that we have new ideas and new understanding that better explains the world. Science is progress.

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