In this episode, Dr. Chewie journeys to the University Cultural Centre (UCC) at NUS to attend a talk by no ordinary speaker: George Musser, a notable science writer (very much like Dr. Chewie thinks he is). Here’s how Dr. Chewie’s reflected on the event:
I had arrived late for the session, bumbling in with my trusty companion as we hurriedly made our way past the registration counter and into the dance studio. Even from my experience of attending science talks, the venue itself was rather unorthodox; this was further amplified by the fact that the guest speaker was a science writer publicizing his latest book on quantum mechanics.
The talk itself was engaging but filled with abstract concepts as Musser himself struggled to explain the queer and increasingly mind-boggling theories. But the dynamic nature of his work shone through, as the scientifically inclined audience lapped up his every word like a dying man to water. Musser spoke mainly of recent advancements in the field of physics, both theoretical and experimental. What fascinated me most from his talk was his comment on the validity of scientific concepts and how far the scientific community as a whole should persist with certain concepts, especially those controversial and controvertible ones.
The main example which he raised pertained to the the idea of locality, a rather complex concept which probably only those who study higher level physics will have heard of (for the sake of your sanity, dear reader, I shan’t delve deeper into elucidating this term, but if you are truly curious, Google is your best friend). Locality is a phenomenon which has served physics well over the last century or so, accurately describing every observation made by scientists. Well, almost every observation; Musser listed several examples that certainly did not help extenuate our doubts on the matter, as if we ever needed them.
But his point surfaced greater questions about the way science should be viewed and taught in schools. Should the scientific community continue to support a theory in face of new evidence that the theory could be limited, or worse, completely off tangent? While many will answer ‘yes’ without hesitation, I believe that the propensity for confirmation bias to rear its ugly head increases by a thousandfold should we be in affirmation. Confirmation biases implant tendencies in our minds to view experimental results and observations in the way we wish for them to be – to support our own theories and hypotheses. Can we ever be sure of these laws of nature, even if they have been verified experimentally? Moreover, can we confidently teach them in schools to students, where the errors might be amplified so many times more? It’s a debate that will no doubt rage on, and provides plenty of food for thought.
Proceeding to the Q&A segment, Musser proceeded over to the armchair placed at the center of the stage, for a moment, he laid back in his armchair, clearly weary from his hour long talk. When the segment began however, he immediately leaned forward, the beaming smile back on his face as he braced himself for a torrent of questions. While most questions were rather interesting pertaining to science related concepts, the most interesting by far, in my opinion, was reserved the last.
The audience member began shakily, but gradually grew more confident in the asking. “I have many books at home, some telling me about space-time, others telling me about how time itself is a rubbish concept, and many contradicting theories. Do you think, in your experience as a science writer, that theoretical physics has lost its way?” Musser gave a slight chuckle before proceeding to answer, firmly, that it has not.
I believe that the member of the audience who asked that question, and those who share his sentiments, are the ones who have lost their way. One of today’s most celebrated and venerable physicists, Stephen Hawking, once remarked that “philosophy is dead…Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.” There is some modicum of truth in his criticism of the approach that many notable philosophers, such as Aristotle and Zeno, took in contributing ideas to Science; most philosophers proposed what we probably consider now as wild and outlandish (Aristotle once rebuked atomic theory, claiming that all substances were made from the 4 traditional elements, fire, water, air and earth), and they failed to reinforce their theories with physical and empirical evidence. It was not until the philosopher cum scientist Francis Bacon came along in the 16th century that the practice of science began to become more widespread.
But what Hawking, and in my opinion many science practitioners today, fail to realize is that rather than narrow the future of science, philosophy needs to be consistently and continuously expanding. Science ultimately has part of its roots in philosophy, to whatever degree. Philosophers care more about posing abstract and fantastical theories, perhaps unverified, but it is this wealth of theories that gives us greater hope in finally finding the right answers to our questions. Some say that the opening of more paths to provide us a multitude of different answers confuses us, beguiles us into a never ending maze that radical skepticism will eventually come to rule. But if we see these additional routes as opportunities to fail, with each failure further providing us more clues to the universe, then even that is considered science.
Science is like trying to determine the shape of a balloon. We prove this through empirical, experimental evidence. As scientists, we are constantly striving to determine the ‘true’ shape of the balloon. Philosophy, however, merely opens up the prospects of an inflating balloon, providing greater possibilities as to what shape it can take; but if the balloon is never blown, will we ever truly know what shape it will form? Philosophy instils greater doubt in us, persuading us to question more in science, and if there’s one thing that we can always learn from the greats such as Einstein, Darwin, etc, it is that asking for an alternative answer to a question will always be more welcome to science than being content and accepting the convention as it is.
On a final note, I felt a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment that the talk had provided yet another fascinating insight into the world of science. While there have been several trips to other events before which disappointed, this seemingly un-ostentatious talk had more than exceeded expectations in the lessons learnt. Musser’s talk had been exceptional, a fresh breath of air from the usual talks by prominent nobel laureates and professors speaking more specifically about their work. As my companion and I left the dance studio, I could have sworn that the stage lights were twinkling even brighter than when I had entered.
N.B. For those interested to find out, George Musser was publicizing his latest book called ‘Spooky Action at a Distance’, detailing about his compilation of thoughts and examples about nonlocality.
P.S. This is probably the most difficult article that I have ever written in my V Press journey, and if you, dear reader, understand the content perfectly well, then congratulations.