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Thought for the Day: Science Answers How, Not Why; Explains Measurements, Not Intent

In case my current suave and debonair persona makes it hard for you to imagine me as a science nerd, this story should remedy that misconception.  Long before I was married -- in fact, long before I had any thought that marriage and dating had anything to do with each other (I was in college...) -- I asked a girl on a date.  I arrived at the appointed time and she informed me that she had forgotten about that she had homework due the next day. (That's possible, right?  I mean, just because we are all in college and taking a full-time load, that doesn't mean we'll always have homework, right?  I mean, it's not like she said she had to wash her hair, right?)  Anyway, apparently felt a little badly (big step up from anyone else -- both of them -- that I had asked before), so she asked if I'd like to have some popcorn and visit at little bit.  I didn't have to be asked twice!  She asked me, "Why are you a physics major?  That sounds so boring!"  I should have known right then that this wasn't going to end well, but I was ever the optimist.  "Well," I said with a lot of confidence, "haven't you ever wondered why the sky is blue?"  "No," she answered.  Moreover, even I could hear in her tone of voice that she couldn't even fathom why anyone would wonder about that.  Now here's the really priceless part: I tried to explain to her why it was an interesting question.  I failed.

One answer to the question (see?  I haven't changed much) is: because the sunset is red.  (I've heard that sunrises are red also, but I'm always davening at the time.)  That is, white light is made up of a rainbow of colors; if you remove one color, you are left with the others.  "But how does the red get pushed toward the sunset/sunrise?"  Now you are asking a science question.  Science endeavors to explain experimentally observed facts in terms of an underlying model.  Having just a catalog of facts is not science; science is looking for the how of things.  You know you have scientific hypothesis when you hit a model that both fits the currently observed data and also predicts things that have not yet been observed.  You have a scientific theory when further experimentation confirms those predictions.

It is in that sense that a scientific theory is true: it explains all known observations (within the context of applicability of the theory) and it has made predictions that have been confirmed.  Please note -- this is really, really important and it will be on the test -- the goodness of a scientific is measured by how well it models behavior and not how well it describes what is really happening.  When Robert Boyle (of Boyle's Law fame) published his results, Isaac Newton showed that the results could be very well explained by assuming that a gas was made up of tiny little balls (hey... sounds like molecules, no?) that are not moving and that repel each other.  That model explained the available experimental data and made useful predictions.  So it is very good science.

It is, however, also wrong.  Two centuries later (and after much work in the field of physical science in general), Maxwell and Boltzmann were able to show that a gas consists of little balls (so far, so good) that are travelling very fast -- faster than jet fighters, in fact -- that attract -- not repel -- each other.  If anyone, including Sir Isaac Newton himself, had suggested that model based on the work of Boyle and the then extant state of science, he would have been derisively dismissed by the entire natural science community; and quite rightly.  Why should anyone think that that the tiny balls of gas are moving so fast in a container of gas that is sitting perfectly still?!  The correct/really true explanation, therefore, would have been bad science.

What we call modern physics -- and is the basis for the big bang theory and much of evolution -- is barely a century old.  That's about half the time it took to find the mistake in Newton's seminal work on understanding the gas law.  Good science always defers to Reality, but not without a fight.  For science, measurement is king.  Good science, therefore, is always -- by design -- wrong, but with an eye to improving.

The moral is that you can't base morality on science; to do so is a perversion of both.

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