A View of Science: Lawrence Krauss on Cosmic Connections

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

This is based on the following talk: Lawrence Krauss on Cosmic Connections – A Vimeo video

Over at Stephen Law’s blog I’ve been responding to criticisms of Peter Atkins by Stephen Law, Mary Midgeley, and comments on Stephen’s blog.

In his talk Krauss makes two important points that distinguish science from theology, and some philosophy (the ‘only thinking allowed’ type of philosophy, as opposed by Atkins).

The first is on the nature of the scientific method, in principle. I’m not talking about some of the details: come up with the hypothesis, design experiments to falsify it, run experiments, evaluate results, test a theories predictions, etc. I’m talking about the contingency built into science as a principle.

…The big question is, how did the water get here [on Earth]? And the answer is we don’t know – sort of. Which is, by the way, the best answer in science. ‘Cause the other thing people don’t realise about science which differentiates it from religion, is that the most exciting thing about being a scientist is not knowing. Well, there’s two things. Being wrong is up there too. Because that means there’s a lot left to learn. We have some ideas [about how water came to be on Earth]…

… As wonderful as that

is, it’s wrong. It’s amazing when something works out perfectly and you find out it’s wrong. I’ve had that experience many times, ’cause I’ve been wrong many times. It just looks elegant and beautiful, and it’s wrong. And that’s the other gift that science has for us. I hope all of you have that experience, at least once in your life: that something you deeply and profoundly believe in because it’s beautiful and elegant and wonderful turns out to be wrong. Because then you can open your mind.

Now, sure enough, this isn’t always how science goes. There will, inevitably, be scientists who are a little too strident in pushing their particular ideas. Not that this matters much within their specific field, because their peers will see through any bluff and thunder and criticise the protagonists without mercy.

Obstinacy in holding to the status quo can sometimes stall progress; but then being open to every new idea leads to chaos and can in its own way prevent progress. It may be that sometimes the balance isn’t right – but scientists, the ones doing the science, are only human.

But there is a problem with the wider perception of science, particular when journalists fail to explain the contingent nature of what seems like an absolute assertion, or when an anti-science theist gets hold of an misrepresents the whole of science using one over egged pudding.

What should we expect from our scientists? Perfection? But the whole point about the benefits of science is, as Krauss frames it, it’s endeavour to look for answers, to make mistakes, to look for better answers, to dare to be wrong. And this in the hands of imperfect fallible human beings – yes, again, scientists are human beings.

The other point that came out of this talk by Krauss is on the benefit of science. Science is often compared unfavourably to other human activities, which we could simply call the arts. Krauss puts things in perspective.

I do theoretical physics, and it’s kind of esoteric. And people say why the hell do you do it. What’s it good for. Which amazes me when they say that because I rarely get asked what’s a Picasso painting good for, or what’s a Mozart concerto good for. But somehow science has to do something, and somehow make a better toaster, or something like that. But the biggest and most important thing about science is not that it does anything, but that it enhances our lives with beautiful ideas that change the way we think about ourselves. ‘Cause that’s what all good art and music and literature is all about; it’s changing our perspective of our place in the universe. And that’s what science does.

Well, I’d add to that. Science is just as enlightening to our lives as the arts, if not more so, since there is much art and beauty in science. But not only that, science also does stuff! It does build better toasters. Science has both beauty and practicality.

The beauty available to the arts is available to everyone, as is the added beauty of science, for those prepared to look for it. This is from Richard Feynman on this very point (no apologies for referring to this yet again). Richard Feynman – Ode on a Flower.

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