Science in Review: Have You Tried Turning Science Off And Turning It Back On Again?

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If we had to start all over again with science, I wonder what would change and what would stay the same? (Photo by underclasscameraman )

Earlier this month, I commented on research into a possible relationship between social stratification and human sacrifice in early civilizations. Anthropologist and ESN blogger Kevin Birth quickly provided a significant critique of the study’s methodology and the underlying assumptions. I imagine that kind of discussion might raise a few eyebrows; isn’t science supposed to be objective, not to mention correct? If the study really is that flawed, how did it get published in such a prestigious journal? If it is valid, why isn’t its validity objectively clear to all scientists? We can’t even agree on who is a scientist, so how are we to figure out what science says?.

Maybe it’s just that social sciences are difficult; what about physics? There it’s the EM drive making headlines. The drive has intriguing potential for spacecraft propulsion, but on paper it sounds like yet another too-good-to-be-true perpetual motion scheme, just with a Star Trek twist. Conventional vehicles–by air, land, sea, or space–move forward by making something else go backward. Space rockets propel gas down to generate thrust to go up. Cars actually push the Earth backward, but because the Earth is so massive the effect is imperceptible. The EM drive appears to be different however. It is a closed container, nothing is propelled out of it in any direction, and no part of it pushes against its external environment. Theoretically, there’s no reason to think that it would work, and plenty of scientists have attested to why it shouldn’t. But multiple independent groups (including NASA) have built them and tested them multiple different ways, and as far as anyone can figure these unconventional engines actually do generate thrust.

We have an understanding of how propulsion and thrust and momentum work, based on centuries of observation, experimentation, and application. We drive cars on highways and launch rockets into space, so we must be on to something. Yet that understanding doesn’t explain the EM drive. There’s no precedent for it, no past experience to suggest anything should work the way it does. This is part of Birth’s critique of the social stratification study, that prior experience in anthropology indicates questions like the one being asked just can’t be answered. When you are claiming to do something no one else has succeeded at, you’d better be prepared to make an overwhelming case. You’ll need more tests, more data, independent verification, and new theories which explain everything the old ones did plus your new findings.

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“If I have seen further, it is by making these binoculars with my hands.” (Photo by rocor )

In many cases of unprecedented claims, that standard of validation proves too high. Just recently, faster-than-light neutrinos and BICEP2 results on cosmic inflation failed to meet those standards. These studies aren’t evidence that science is failing, just that scientists are operating at the limits of what we understand. If scientists are going to add to our knowledge, they have to ask questions to which they don’t already know the answer; that’s why they play the game. In fact, the EM drive is kind of the physics equivalent of Stephen Curry. Curry plays basketball for the Golden State Warriors, and he recently set a new record for successful three-point shots by making 402 in one season. The previous record was 286 (also held by Curry). Professional sports records aren’t generally broken by 40%; what Curry did was nigh unimaginable. Basketball isn’t broken because Curry is defying predictions; basketball has been given an opportunity to expand its horizons.

Already, new explanations for the EM drive are coming in. One theory says the drive demonstrates a consequence of known quantum mechanics, we just hadn’t extrapolated to these particular circumstances before. Quantum mechanics tells us that on small scales, quantities that we think we can measure to have any possible numeric value can actually only have certain discrete amounts. The new explanation proposes that inertia comes in discrete units, and the particular shape of the EM drive favors certain values over others, creating a net positive inertia in a particular direction.

You can think of this like getting rid of the penny and rounding all transactions to the nearest nickel. Sometimes you’ll pay more than you would if you could use pennies and sometimes you’ll pay less, but if prices are random you’ll tend to come out even. But if prices aren’t random, like maybe they tended to end in 99 cents more often, then you could wind up spending more money overall. The cone shape of the EM drive might create an analogous bias on the inertia values.

The apparently discrete nature of physics on the tiniest scales has another interesting and equally surprising consequence: it makes people consider the possibility that the universe is a simulation. Our computers can only handle discrete numbers, not the infinite range of all possible numbers, so our simulations are necessarily discrete in some fashion. Therefore we imagine simulated universes would be discrete. When we see the apparently discrete nature of our universe, it makes the (ancient) idea that our universe is simulated seem more plausible. Currently, Neil deGrasse Tyson is making headlines for saying he thinks the simulation hypothesis is a distinct possibility.

A simulated universe adds a whole new wrinkle to how we understand science. When we encounter something unprecedented, like the EM drive or Steph Curry, maybe it’s not an opportunity to learn more of what has always been true about the world. Instead, maybe what is true about the world has changed. After all, whoever is running the simulation could changes the parameters whenever they wanted to. In fact, maybe they are monitoring our progress and changing the rules whenever it seems like we’ve got the old ones figured out, to see if we can learn the new ones or just to see how we react. It’s an interesting possibility, but I’m not sure it is a useful perspective for doing science.

Ultimately, my hope for resolving uncertainties about science rest in God. I believe God exists and wants to be known. I believe he created the world in order to be known, and so consequently the world is knowable. When questions arise in science where the answer isn’t clear, I don’t despair that we might have broken science. And I don’t see them as new challenges from our pan-dimensional simulating overlords. I see them as an opportunity to learn something new about God.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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