Science! And Antiquated Notions!

This is a little on the nit-picky side, but illustrative of a larger and more substantial issue. From today’s Google news science feed:

Stunning new Pluto photos: Could we have imagined this 50 years ago?

First it was towering mountains of ice and a surprisingly crater-free plain. Now it’s icy terrain with a snakeskin vibe and a section of the plain covered in tiny dimples, giving it a texture resembling a cantaloupe.

With the release Thursday of several new images from New Horizons’ flyby of the Pluto-Charon system in July, Pluto continues to amaze.

For William McKinnon, a planetary geologist on the New Horizons team who has been studying the formation and evolution of icy moons in the outer solar system for more than 30 years, the landscape the new images reveal is “unique and perplexing.”

First off: good job, Science! Way cool stuff here. Great pictures, wonderfully successful mission. More, please!  But to the point:

When planetary geologist Geoffrey Collins needs an informal gauge of how much progress has been made, he thumbs through a children’s book about planets published in the 1960s.

“I keep it on my shelf in my office at home … just to remind me of what people knew” back then…


“I’m always sobered by these kinds of discoveries,” he (Scott Kenyon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) says. “We make very complicated models for exoplanets that we can’t see. And we make statements that are very confident. But we’re continually surprised because the universe is varied on scales we sometimes fail to understand.”

The more general problem here: we humans love our stories, scientists no less than anybody else. But we tend to make them up as soon as we know anything at all, and then invest them with way more weight than they deserve. Then, we get a closer look and new information, and it turns out our ideas are all wrong. Are we humbled? Do we propose new, less ambitious and more cautious theories to account for what we now know? Have you been reading this blog very long?

No, the next round of theories – stories – will be every bit as strongly stated and certain sounding as the recently discredited ones. Once we land probes on some of these outer moons and planetoids, we’ll once again be shocked – shocked, I tell you! – to discover that we were all wrong about a bunch of stuff, and that, for example, Mars is more like the moon than the earth, that the major moons of the gas giants are not just balls of rock and ice, but are geologically active and complex, and so on – like in the kid’s book mentioned above, I recall reading about space as a kid versus what is said now. Big differences.

It’s similar in other fields as well. As more information came in, dinosaurs went from these ponderous, slow, thick beasts to something more like giant chickens. Early man went from mate-clubbing imbeciles to remarkably sophisticated social animals. Commercial nuclear fusion went from something 10 years out 50 years ago to something 10 years out today.

Now, there’s very little harm in getting a bit dogmatic in one’s speculations about planets, dinosaurs and early man. Whether Pluto is as smooth as a cue-ball or cratered like the moon or – as it turns out – way more geologically complex is not going to change the lives of 99.999% of people. Similarly, it just doesn’t make any difference to the rest of us if dinosaurs are slow-moving and stupid or bird-like and relatively intelligent, or if early man had a cultural life or not.

But other sciency-sounding theories do have practical implications. Those are the ones of which one must be cautious. We must ask: how would we *know* that? Have we seen it clearly? Have we successfully applied the theory – the story – to real life? Does it match what we do see?

Now, some things, such as electricity, chemistry and a lot of nuclear physics, are largely immune to such overreaching speculation, because of the practical technologies that depend on them. People did have all sorts of crazy theories about electrical essences and phlogiston and little indivisible atoms, but these gradually fell aside once people began to *use* their understanding to make stuff like electric lights, chemical dyes and microprocessors. But wherever that time-tested technological usefulness isn’t fully embodied in products, there remains plenty of room for stories that go too far – stories that will be shown to be wrong when we get a closer look at things.

Grain of salt, people.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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