I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Science, the Scientific Method, and Hard SF

Non-scientists find it difficult to comprehend that scientific theories cannot ever be completely proved. No theory is ever “final”, but with the passing of time, as new experiments and refined measurements keep verifying it, a theory becomes the foundation upon which scientists can build new theories. As a scientist, you can believe in the validity of a theory and, provisionally, do as if it were completely certain, while knowing in the back of your mind that a new fact discovered tomorrow might not fit into it. When that happens, especially with well established theories, the obvious reaction is to find a way of extending the theory to include the new fact.

In a sense, a theory that has worked well in many cases cannot ever be disproved. You just need to know when it can be applied. For example, Newtonian Mechanics is perfectly correct in your everyday life. You don’t need to be concerned with relativistic or quantum effects when catching a bus!

Consider the Theory of Evolution. The bigots (according to Wikipedia, a bigot is a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices) who push for Intelligent Design to be taught in schools have no idea of what a scientific theory is, and have no qualms in proposing their beliefs as an alternative to Darwinian Evolution. They insist on the word “theory” associated with Evolution without realising that, by doing so, they only show their scientific ignorance. After so many decades, Darwinian Evolution has survived every criticism thrown at it, and every new discovery in Molecular Biology keeps confirming its validity. Therefore, even if tomorrow somebody discovered something that doesn’t fit into it, it will not change the fact that the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection applies to us, the dinosaurs, the amoebas, and the rest of species that populate earth.

One problem is that many (perhaps most) people find it difficult to cope with uncertainty. They “need” to believe in something, to be certain that it is true. Dare I say that the less intelligent people are, the more they depend on certainties? It makes sense, because it is easier to deal with simple choices than having to evaluate complex factors and cope with fuzzy ideas. Then, everything becomes black or white, without shades of grey; stereotypes drive your behaviour; and a priest, speaking on behalf of a God who is by definition unprovable, tells you what is right or wrong. How easy is that?

Another debate that only shows scientific ignorance is the one about climate change. Even the question “do you believe in it?” is nonsensical, because it is not a matter of belief at all. Changes have been measured and the influence of humanity is clear. But even if it were not, it would still remain a stupid debate, because, regardless of how much humanity contributes to them, climate changes are going to cause us problems soon.

We have been cutting forests, burning in decades what took millions of years to put into the ground, using up natural resources as if they were unlimited, and creating substances that don’t exist in nature. You can bet your ass that sooner or later you will have to pay the bill for all that. The only questions are when, how high the price, and in what currency. If the earth climate reaches a tipping point, like the stopping of the Gulf Stream, just to mention a possible one, we are going to regret to have wasted so much time debating whether computer models are credible or what influence the Sun spots have on our temperature.

The effects of science and technology have become pervasive in our modern world. Science is too important to be considered a subject of choice. We should teach the scientific method in all schools. Physics should become a compulsory subject, beside literature and languages. It would automatically resolve many of the senseless debates that afflict us today.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the huge technological development in computing had a deleterious effect on understanding science. The reason is that films and computer games show what is physically impossible as if it were real. Already the battering that Bruce Willies, Silvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger could endure in their action movies of some years ago was superhuman. But today’s Computer Generated Images (CGI) completely remove the boundaries between reality and fantasy. The children that grow up with these images think that everything is possible.

Many years ago, when Wile E. Coyote ran past the edge of the cliff and looked down suspended in mid air before falling, he was violating the laws of Physics. But he was clearly a cartoon character. It was funny to see him precisely because he and the Roadrunner were unrealistic.

Compared with the fantastic worlds we see on the screen today, our real world is unexciting. Some people respond to these stimuli by seeking the thrills of extreme sports. Many others just look for “more”: more exciting, more entertaining, more extreme, more fantastic, ... It doesn’t surprise me that Science Fiction has become a minor component of what we call Speculative Fiction.

SpecF is used to collectively indicate Fantasy, Horror, and SF, but you only need to go to a bookshop to see that the SpecF shelves are full of extremely thick books about dragons, elves, wizards, vampires, zombies, and people with supernatural powers.

Not much SF around these days, and even less of what I call “Hard Science Fiction” (HSF). That is, a work of fiction that relies for its existence on scientific or technological facts.

When Jules Verne in 1865 wrote “De la Terre à la Lune” (From the Earth to the Moon), he got it wrong: you cannot use a mass of expanding gas to propel a payload into space and, in any case, the initial acceleration would kill you. But Verne gave birth to the idea of reaching into space with technological means rather than, say, being transported on the wings of an angel.

It is not necessary for a HSF story to be consistent with all scientific knowledge we currently have. For example, you can hypothesise that one day we will discover a way of breaking the speed of light barrier. Although this contradicts Relativity, it is conceivable that one day we will formulate a more general theory that admits superluminal speed under specific circumstances not considered in Relativity, exactly as Relativity generalises Newtonian Mechanics without invalidate it.

Sometimes, a HSF story speculates on possible consequences of what we already know. Some other times, it relies on a new discovery to trigger a chain of events. But, in any case, it remains consistent to its premises.

Arthur C. Clarke, one of the greatest HSF authors of all times, formulated three laws to help people predict the future:

1.  When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2.  The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3.  Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The difference between Clarke’s third law and the magic found in so many books sold today is that the magic Clarke refers to is perceived, not real. If somebody of even just a couple of hundred years ago could visit today’s world, would see spells and charms where there are none.

I am a Trekker, a convinced Star Trek fan. Gene Roddenberry’s stories rely on three things that, when Star Trek was first aired, were considered impossible: warp drive, transporters, and artificial gravity. They were “tricks” to make the stories possible. Without superluminal speed, travel between the stars would have taken many years, too long for 45-minute episodes; transporters made landing onto alien worlds easy, as always shuttling forth and back would have been bothersome and time consuming; and artificial gravity was necessary for two reasons: a film with people constantly floating around would have been annoying to say the least, and the acceleration of a starship would have killed the crew.

I don’t remember who said that in a good HSF story, you can ask the reader to believe something that is considered impossible, but only once. And yet, although Star Trek expected from us to suspend disbelief more than once, those stories inspired real astronauts and scientists, and it is no longer clear that faster than light travel will remain impossible forever.

Without HSF, where would future generations of scientists find their inspirations? Who would tell them stories about all those impossible things they can aim for?

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