Science Is Not About Certainty
July 16, 2014 § 1 Comment
The separation of science and the humanities is relatively new—and detrimental to both
By Carlo Rovelli. Excerpted from The Universe: Leading Scientists Explore the Origin, Mysteries, and Future of the Cosmos. Copyright © 2014 by Edge Foundation, Inc. Published by Harper Perennial.
We teach our students: We say that we have some theories about science. Science is about hypothetico-deductive methods; we have observations, we have data, data require organizing into theories. So then we have theories. These theories are suggested or produced from the data somehow, then checked in terms of the data. Then time passes, we have more data, theories evolve, we throw away a theory, and we find another theory that’s better, a better understanding of the data, and so on and so forth.
This is the standard idea of how science works, which implies that science is about empirical content; the true, interesting, relevant content of science is its empirical content. Since theories change, the empirical content is the solid part of what science is.
Now, there’s something disturbing, for me, as a theoretical scientist, in all this. I feel that something is missing. Something of the story is missing. I’ve been asking myself, “What is this thing missing?” I’m not sure I have the answer, but I want to present some ideas on something else that science is.
This is particularly relevant today in science, and particularly in physics, because—if I’m allowed to be polemical—in my field, fundamental theoretical physics, for thirty years we have failed. There hasn’t been a major success in theoretical physics in the last few decades after the standard model, somehow. Of course there are ideas. These ideas might turn out to be right. Loop quantum gravity might turn out to be right, or not. String theory might turn out to be right, or not. But we don’t know, and for the moment Nature has not said yes, in any sense.
I suspect that this might be in part because of the wrong ideas we have about science, and because methodologically we’re doing something wrong—at least in theoretical physics, and perhaps also in other sciences. Let me tell you a story to explain what I mean. The story is an old story about my latest, greatest passion outside theoretical physics—an ancient scientist, or so I say even if often he’s called a philosopher: Anaximander. I’m fascinated by this character, Anaximander. I went into understanding what he did, and to me he’s a scientist. He did something that’s very typical of science and shows some aspect of what science is. What is the story with Anaximander? It’s the following, in brief:
Until Anaximander, all the civilizations of the planet— everybody around the world—thought the structure of the world was the sky over our heads and the earth under our feet. There’s an up and a down, heavy things fall from the up to the down, and that’s reality. Reality is oriented up and down; Heaven’s up and Earth is down. Then comes Anaximander and says, “No, it’s something else. The Earth is a finite body that floats in space, without falling, and the sky is not just over our head, it’s all around.”
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