Monday, October 3, 2011


Oh, no, already?  Well, yes.  I was a bit rash in my post on the closing of the Tevatron when I declared the reason to be solely funding-related.  I later kept hearing from NPR and BBC that it was shut down as "obsolete."  I'm still not sure about that reasoning, though.  I can still imagine it to be doing useful work, much like an amateur astronomer can still discover objects in the solar system that professional researchers can miss, with low-cost backyard telescopes.  But, if the Tevatron is like a backyard telescope, and not much cheaper to run than the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, I can see how the inefficiency might make the machine less than cost-effective.
I also neglected to point out that quantum physics has already provided us with useful devices like transistors and lasers, which led to modern computers and smartphones, and DVD and Blu-Ray players, replacing vacuum tubes and magnetic tapes, respectively.  This insight came directly from a book I just started, Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku, which seems like it's going to be a very good read.
This is a good opportunity to make a useful point about retractions.  The scientific process is rife with retractions, and this process of self-editing can make science difficult for people to keep up with ("How many planets are there now?") or even trust, with the reasoning:  "If science keeps changing the facts, how can we believe any of it?"
Well, the answer to that cuts to the root of science, and the fact that humans are doing it.  Science is the process by which we use experimentation and observation to reach conclusions about the nature of... anything, really.  But humans are making the observations, running the experiments, and even when computers and robots are given the grunt work, humans are still deciding what to observe and how to run the experiment.  And the problem with humans is, we make mistakes (see paragraphs 1 and 2 above).  The scientific process does a great deal to cut down on human error, but we still manage to reach a false conclusion now and then, or oversimplify.
(Also consider the effect of improving technology.  Before microscopes, people didn't know if disease was caused by invisible agents in the air or water, or if the air and water itself was bad, and caused illness and death.  When the microscope was invented, people could finally observe the disease causing bacteria in patients' bodily fluids.)
One way that science keeps changing is from new observations that call into questions old models of the way things work.  When Newton explained gravity it threw out old models of planetary motion, once explained by aether, winds that pushed the planets, or even angels.  And then when Einstein explained general relativity, gravity wasn't thrown out, but had to be modified to explain effects that Newton never even knew about.
Sometimes old models have to be completely removed to account for new observations, and sometimes the old models can be modified.  Either way, "facts" change, and that makes people uncomfortable.  That's fine.  Frankly, I get a bit angry at myself when I learn that an interesting "fact" I'd been sharing with people is misleading or completely false.
So, retractions are upsetting, it's true.  But consider the alternative!  A world where science makes no retractions, where anything that is declared to be true remains true forever, and heaven help you if you question it!  Where free thought is discouraged, as it might lead to insights and observations that question established "facts."
You can see where I'm going with this.
We're human.  We make mistakes.  It's okay.  The important thing is not to beat yourself up over it, leave your mistakes behind, hang on to the ideas and models that work, and keep moving on to the next big thing.  As an observer, understand that the facts you depend on today might become just like the silly antiquated ideas of yesterday, in exchange for a brighter tomorrow.

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