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Science past and present

Tom Siegfried
Context

Top 10 things everybody should know about science

Our lives are inextricably linked to the sun. But, as No. 6 says, our sun is only one of bil­lions and billions in the universe.

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Second of two parts (Read Part 1)

In the opening chapter of his famous Lectures on Physics, Richard Feynman pondered the nature of science, the laws of physics, and the best way to teach it all. He emphasized that much of the vast accumulation of scientific knowledge could be condensed into some essential principles that allowed all sorts of sophisticated deductions.

Suppose some cataclysm destroyed the world’s scientific knowledge, and it was possible to pass only one sentence about it down to future generations. What statement would transmit the most information in the fewest words, Feynman asked. He chose what he called the atomic hypothesis: “All things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.”

Today, of course, you couldn’t compose just any sentence. It would have to be a tweet, and Feynman’s sentence wouldn’t fit. You’d need to say something like this:

All things are made of atoms—tiny particles in constant motion, attracting each other when nearby, repelling when squeezed into each other.

Feynman went on to demonstrate just how much about the workings of nature could be explained from the idea expressed in that tweet.

Back in 1988, I wrote a newspaper column expanding on Feynman’s example, identifying a set of similar principles and ideas that educated people ought to know about science. Some of these points were about the process of science, some about the substance of scientific understanding. Most of them would not fit in tweets. So for the sake of future generations, I’ll now repeat my original list (with some editing, additions and embellishments), now with Twitter versions.

We’ll call Feynman’s sentence about atoms the zeroth item on the Top 10 list so I’ll have room for all the others.

  1. Science successfully explains natural phenomena through rational investigation and logical reasoning rather than by recourse to superstition and mysticism.

    Tweet: Science explains nature rationally and logically, eschewing superstition and mysticism.
     
  2.  When scientific disputes arise, the ultimate arbiter is not expert authority or common sense but experimental evidence, guided by theory.

    Tweet: Fits as is!
     
  3. Scientific theories are not “guesses” but are logi­cally rigorous attempts to explain the observed facts of nature and to predict the results of new observations.

    Tweet: Theories aren’t guesses; they are logically rigorous explanations of observed phenomena that predict new results.
     
  4. When a theory’s predictions are confirmed, it becomes an essential tool in the further practice of science, but even good theories may someday be superseded by theories more comprehensive or more accurate.

    Tweet: Good theories may be superseded by better theories.
     
  5. The universe is vast and old, with our sun one of bil­lions of stars in a local galaxy, joined by billions of similar galaxies occupying the depths of space beyond.

    Tweet: There are billions and billions of stars.
     
  6. Life has changed over the eons, with complex creatures evolving from simpler precursors, and human beings therefore occupy one branch of an immense fam­ily tree of living organisms — all sharing a common molecular machinery driving basic life processes.

    Tweet: All life is related.
     
  7. As Einstein demonstrated, conceptions of time and space based on everyday life don’t apply accurately to all speeds and all realms of space.

    Tweet: Fits!
     
  8. The microworld of the atom, and realms even smaller, obey “quantum” laws completely at odds with common sense, and notions of cause and effect and the very nature of reality are inherently blurred on that scale.

    Tweet: The subatomic realm is weird.
     
  9. The way a thing works is often influenced by its connections to other things and the ways that they work, a principle that applies to everything from the networks of cells in the brain and the body’s other organs, to ecological and economic systems, to human interactions and social institutions.

    Tweet: Networks Are Us.
     
  10. Little is certain in science but much is highly probable, and the proper quantification of probabilities is essential for inferring facts, drawing conclusions and formulating sound judgments.

    Tweet: Learn some damn statistics.

This list omits my original concluding point, so I’ll append it separately as a metaprinciple:

As Hamlet told Horatio, there is more to the world than we have dreamed of in our philosophies. There is more to be discovered, and principles today unknown will someday yield their secrets to continued inquiry, if the culture of the future remains educated enough to permit science to survive. And allows more substance than tweeting can accommodate.

Follow me on Twitter: @tom_siegfried

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