Thursday, April 9, 2009

Science, Nature, and Human Error

This Natural Liberation blog is all too often about political events of the day. Needing a topic to write on, I can look at the day's news. I can also illuminate the topic with some examples from history. The importance of politics is clear: not only are people living or dying because of political decisions, but species are surviving or not, and the entire vast web of life built up on earth these past billions of years is also in peril. Yet I did not want this blog mainly to be about politics.

I want to return to the theme of natural liberation. By going back and forth between how we participate in events and our ethics, we can refine both our knowledge of the world and of our ethics. By looking at mistakes in human reasoning in philosophy, we might liberate ourselves and find a Natural Liberation philosophy that is both good and based on a clear view of the material world.

Science is supposed to be about truth, but it is a troublesome issue for me and many of my friends. I turned away from science when I learned about its misuse by militarists. At the time the Vietnam War was waging and I was worried I would be drafted. That war ended, but the misuse of science has not changed in my lifetime. But all too many people throw out the baby (accurate understanding of nature) with the bath water (bad things done by science and technology).

Science is all about understanding nature. In itself, it is an honest pursuit. When religion, pseudo-science, or new-age claptrap is substituted for science, that is for understanding nature, the problems created by human beings can be as catastrophic as using scientific knowledge for unethical ends.

The history of science is often more instructive than just learning about the current state of scientific knowledge. Usually science histories seem to illuminate a clear path from the Dark Ages to the Nuclear Age. The real history of science includes mistaken ideas in a proportion of over 10 to 1 compared to the ones that eventually stood up to testing. Reading about scientists, including great scientists, making mistakes is a humbling and illuminating experience.

Inward Bound by Abraham Pais shows the many mistakes it sometimes takes to get an accurate view when fallible humans are seeking to understand nature. His story of the discovery of what we call x-rays by Wilhelm Roentgen. He was working with a cathode ray tube, a device that had been around for decades and was still just a decade ago commonly used for TV and computer monitor screens. He wanted to repeat and elaborate on Philipp Lenard's experiment, which was designed to study the rays when outside the actual cathode tube. His experimental device was almost the same as Lenard's, but he saved himself some time and money. Instead of encasing the tube in metal to prevent the rays from escaping randomly, he found that black cardboard would do the job adequately.

Then he noticed something everyone had missed until then: a phosphorescent screen glowed a good distance from the tube, where there was a hole in the cardboard. We now call this phenomena x-rays. The rays inside the tube we call electrons. When an electron of sufficiently high energy hits the glass lining the tube, it may cause an x-ray to be emitted. Lenard missed seeing x-rays because his metal enclosure stopped them.

People loved x-rays. We still use them the same way, to make the invisible visible. For instance taking pictures of bones inside the human body.

Roentgen became pretty good at manipulating x-rays, but strangely his theory about them was quite wrong. He thought they were the long-suspected but never found longitudinal vibrations of electro-magnetism. In fact they were later proven to be just like light and other electro-magnetic waves, only at a very high energy and very short wavelength.

Roentgen was not alone. Many scientists agreed with him about the likely nature of x-rays. Even stranger, despite cathode ray tubes having been in existence for decades by the time of Roentgen's 1895 discovery, no one had "discovered" the electron.

And despite the fact that the periodic table of elements had been worked out in the mid-1800's, no one had put together an even moderately accurate theory of atoms that would explain those chemical facts.

Even more astonishing, when Albert Einstein published his Theory of Special Relativity in 1905, generally still considered to be the most mind-blowing science paper ever, there was still no accurate understanding of atomic particles. The proton would not be "discovered" until 1918. Einstein did not need one: his theory was about time, space, and light (electromagnetism), not about atomic particles.

So it should not be surprising when ordinary people, and even people with scientific training, fall for pseudo-science. The only way to avoid that in general is to maintain a healthy level of skepticism, a balanced personality, and a grounding in the natural world.

No comments:

Post a Comment