Sunday, September 21, 2014
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The Essence of Science

Richard Feynman says the essence of science is experiment, but what's the essence of a good experiment?

The Essence of Science

A reader sent me this interesting blog post from NPR’s Robert Krulwich. He comments on a snippet of a 1964 lecture by physicist Richard Feynman:

Think about what he's saying. Science is our way of describing — as best we can — how the world works. The world, it is presumed, works perfectly well without us. Our thinking about it makes no important difference. It is out there, being the world. We are locked in, busy in our minds. And when our minds make a guess about what's happening out there, if we put our guess to the test, and we don't get the results we expect, as Feynman says, there can be only one conclusion: we're wrong

That makes it sound easy, but how do you define a valid experiment or observation of nature? A few readers informed me recently that there are hundreds of papers describing cold fusion and showing that it works. There are also quite a few showing that it doesn’t work. I'd put my money with the naysayers.

And scientists have to be careful to distinguish whether an idea is wrong or the experiment that appeared to contradict the idea is what’s wrong. Some overly eager physicists starting talking about proving Einstein's relativity wrong last fall when they thought they’d observed a beam of particles travel faster than the speed of light. That would contradict Einstein if that’s what they saw. But it wasn’t.   

The right take-away message from Feynman is that in an ideal world, scientists should try not to prove their ideas right but to prove them wrong. But that, too, is easier said than done, scientists being human and subject to wishes, desires and self-delusion. That’s why it’s so important to have lots of independent confirmation.  

People also make mistakes in interpreting the results of a given experiment. Many creationists argue passionately that Louis Pasteur proved the need for a God by showing that life could not ever come from non-life. Therefore, they say, since life is here, it must have been created through a supernatural act.

But Pasteur’s experiments only proved that life didn’t spontaneously emerge under certain conditions and during a rather short time scale.

About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at fflam@phillynews.com. Reach Planet of the at fflam@phillynews.com.

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