Friday, June 18, 2010

Testing Science at the Leading Edge... II

Here's my next entry on science at the leading edge (see
“Real” Science vs. “Cosmological” and “Origins” Science, Testing Science at the leading Edge).  Here I present an example of how we do science when direct experimental verification is not possible, which I have labeled 'option 2' in the previous articles.

So what do we do if a particular experimental confirmation may forever be out of range for Earth-based laboratories, where current technology is not sufficiently sensitive to detect an effect, or too many resources are required to run it. 

If a theory predicts an effect is too small for current technology to detect directly, is that proof that the effect does not exist?

According to many pseudo-scientists, the answer to this question is 'yes'.  They use these 'gaps' in current understanding to squeeze in their outlandish claims.  To isolate the full implications from their belief systems, they have established the categories of “Origins Science” (for Young-Earth Creationists) or “Cosmological Science” (for Electric Universe supporters). 

But consider how foolish such a claim looks in the light of some historical examples.

In 1990, there were NO planets known beyond those in our own Solar System.  Was this proof that no extra-solar planets existed?  At that time, even our own Solar System would be undetectable by the technology of the day even if it were around the nearest stars.   While I've yet to find any documentation that any creationists advocated that our Solar System was unique in all the universe, such a position would certainly be consistent with many characteristics of their beliefs.

By the late 1990s, when the technology finally reached the point where some of the more extreme types of solar systems could be detected, some creationists went so far as to try to dismiss the detections (see Another Failed Creationist Prediction?).

But you might think that these types of problems can only happen when researchers must rely on observation alone.  It can't possibly happen in laboratory science where one has controls on the experiment.  Could it?

Consider another example from the laboratory...

In 1930, subatomic physics was in a turmoil because the process of beta decay seemed to violate conservation of energy, conservation of momentum, and even conservation of angular momentum.  Physicist Wolfgang Pauli postulated that an undetected particle, of very small mass, which did not respond to the electromagnetic or known nuclear force, could explain the discrepancy.  It would be called the neutrino.  With such an assumption, it became possible to construct a mathematical theory of how this particle did interact with other matter in the process of beta-decay and other interactions.  This theory enabled researchers to indirectly determine the characteristics of the particle, as well as refine the theory.  This work also enabled researchers to estimate the type of technology it would take to detect a neutrino in a more direct fashion.  This work would eventually pay off in 1955.

Lest these examples make one think that this case is only relevant in the more esoteric corners of science, and has no impact on our lives, consider the example from the previous part of Newtonian gravitation.

When humans launched the first satellites into orbit in 1957, there was NO laboratory confirmation of the inverse-square distance law of Newtonian gravitation!

Beyond the science fiction of Newton's day, did anyone seriously think that Newtonian gravity would or even could ever be subjected to a laboratory test? 

And if you relied on the astronomical observations, you just had two data points near the Earth - one on the surface, where the acceleration of gravity was measured as a constant to within the precision of the instruments, and the next one at the orbit of the Moon!  There were a few ballistic launches that covered some of this region, but the for most part, the theory of gravitation had 'gaps' that were hundreds of thousands and even millions of miles wide.

Yet with no laboratory confirmation, nations spent millions of dollars in a pursuit to launch satellites into orbit.  This was an effort that actually took a number of years to accomplish.  None of the nations involved started from zero - both Russia and the United States were actively pursuing these goals, but it was not until the launch of Sputnik was it clear that who was ahead in the effort. 

If the residents of a nation believed that only laboratory confirmation of a theory was sufficient to regard a theory as valid science, would they be willing to spend millions of dollars developing the capability to orbit satellites?  

What would the world be like today if U.S. science had adopted such a 'laboratory-only' policy on what qualified as science?

There are a few other examples I've found in scientific history where development of a critical technology would hinge on the reliability of astronomical observations.  I'll save some of those for a future article.

3 comments:

KLSmith said...

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KLSmith
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Siggy_G said...

Fundamental effects of gravity were tested centuries ago e.g. with the Cavendish experiment and the equivalence principle. There is a whole lot of technology and politics bound up to the historical shuttle launches that makes it worthwhile for nation leaders (not neccesarily a nation's residents) to invest billions on them and many other extravagant projects. Investments alone don't verify every purely theoretical aspect of today's science.

Electric Universe (EU) and Plasma cosmology proponents' issue with standard cosmology is mainly that cosmic dynamics are explained primary by named unknown entities we can't neither test nor falsify. These entities are mathematical fudge factors, made physical, due to anomalies between the gravity-only model versus observation. Since the universe is plasma dominated, cosmic processes should be explained in accordance with plasma physics and electric engineering principles, briefly put. Most of what we know of e.g. plasma phyics (extrapolated to astrophyiscal plasma) are based on experiments and in situ measurements. The nature of auroras was experimentally tested decades before in situ measurements confirmed them. "Flux ropes" of electric currents were also detected just a few years ago by the THEMIS satelites, as expected by EU/PC. Other electric features of planets / the lunar surface has been revealed fairly recently, as expected with the plasma/electric approach. In my view, we can extrapolate knowledge of experimentally verified laws of electrical engineering and plasma physics to astrophysical scenarios, and make efforts on detecting and verify them. We can't expect the same things for mere math derived models.

"We have to learn again that science without contact with experiments is an enterprise which is likely to go completely astray into imaginary conjecture." - Evolution of the Solar System, NASA 1976, H. Alfvén & G, Arrhenius, p. 257.

"Today's scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality." - Nikola Tesla, Modern Mechanics and Inventions, July, 1934

Anonymous said...

"Since the universe is plasma dominated, cosmic processes should be explained in accordance with plasma physics and electric engineering principles, briefly put."

If that's so, why have there been essentially no such explanations published (I mean, of course, internally consistent explanations, and ones which explain all the relevant observations)?

For example, of GRBs? of SgrA*? of estimates of galaxy cluster mass derived from multiple sources? of the CMB? of the primordial relative abundance of light nuclides?

""Flux ropes" of electric currents were also detected just a few years ago by the THEMIS satelites, as expected by EU/PC."

You're joking, right? Can you point to publications which support this claim? And by support, I mean scientifically, with equations, numerical predictions, and so on.

"Other electric features of planets / the lunar surface has been revealed fairly recently, as expected with the plasma/electric approach."

Ditto.

"we can extrapolate knowledge of experimentally verified laws of electrical engineering and plasma physics"

Which laws are these? Please list them.

"and make efforts on detecting and verify them"

Why is it, then, that no EU proponents seem to have done anything with the PB (or more) of freely available, high quality astronomical data, to perform such tests?

APODNereid