Monday, 24 September 2007
1+1 = 4
A fractal image
Having spent the weekend with scientists, and having had a dreadful journey home courtesy of the rail network, I got to thinking about the bizarre world scientists inhabit.
Take your average physicist for instance, basically he (the average would be male)lives in a world made of particles and waves. Particles go into making solid, liquid and gassy things, they bounce off each other when they get too close and they contain stuff. You are constantly being bombarded with air particles moving at the speed of a jumbo jet, they collide with you, with each other and with any object that gets in their way. Waves are things that transmit energy without transmitting matter, they can travel through each other, they can merge with each other, they definitely don't collide and rebound.
However, those fundamental particles we call atoms are mainly made of empty space, there is not a lot of stuff in them. Slow them down enough and they will behave like waves. Those waves of light, when they are emitted from atoms can cause particles to alter their direction just as if they had been scattered by other particles. Thus light has particle like properties, just as the particles have wave like properties.
So much for scientific certainty. Your description of the physical world as a scientist depends on what you are observing. At its most fundamental, a quantum physicist even lives in a world where 1+1 can =0 and 1+1 can =4, only on average does 1+1=2!
Why do so many scientists wish to live in a world where they are certain God doesn't exist? They don't even inhabit a world where their scientific certainties are certain and absolute. Scientific method, when stretched to its limits, produces a gloriously bizarre, anarchic yet beautiful world, and like a fractal pattern, the more you look at the edges, the more new horizons open up.
What of scientists themselves? They seem assured that their methods of inquiry are the most reliable, with a confidence a philosopher would not dare to entertain. Scientists quickly forget Gallileo made up data to fit his ideas, Millikan (one of the greatest 19th century experimenters) can be accused of dishonesty, smoothing over some of his more troublesome data and from antiquity, Ptolemy was a plagiarist.
Science is a very human activity and scientists are very human. Science prevents superstition and this is a good thing. Science is useful. Science can be beautiful.
Religion ignores science at its peril, but isn't the opposite also true? Faith provides a disciplined way of looking at the world that is both reasonable and profound, simple and yet full of mystery. Scientists should take it seriously less they wish to call their endeavour into disrepute. After all the world of the physicist is bizarre, illogical and counter-intuitive, precisely the things they dismiss religion for being.