SCIENCE!

One book that I always feel like I should understand better than I do (it’s the mechanics concerning light cones that stretch my ability to visualise) is Professor Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’. The content is roughly what nowadays a Physics or Astronomy student would learn in first year cosmology, but when it was first released the content was close to the cutting edge of modern physics. It is a testament to the great charm of Hawking’s writing, as well as his ability to sell it, that the book has since sold millions of copies, and that Hawking himself is the most famous scientist of our age.

The reason I bring it up now is because of one passage from it that spring to mind the other day (I haven’t read it in over a year, but my brain works like that). In this extract, Hawking claims that some 500 years ago, it would be possible for a (presumably rich, intelligent, well-educated and well-travelled) man to learn everything there was to know about science and technology in his age. This is, when one thinks about it, a rather bold claim, considering the vast scope of what ‘science’ covers- even five centuries ago this would have included medicine, biology, astronomy, alchemy (chemistry not having been really invented), metallurgy and materials, every conceivable branch of engineering from agricultural to mining, and the early frontrunners of physics to name but some. To discover everything would have been quite some task, but I don’t think an entirely impossible one, and Hawking’s point stands: back then, there wasn’t all that much ‘science’ around.

And now look at it. Someone with an especially good memory could perhaps memorise the contents of a year’s worth of New Scientist, or perhaps even a few years of back issues if they were some kind of super-savant with far too much free time on their hands… and they still would have barely scratched the surface. In the last few centuries, and particularly the last hundred or so years, humanity’s collective march of science has been inexorable- we have discovered neurology, psychology, electricity, cosmology, atoms and further subatomic particles, all of modern chemistry, several million new species, the ability to classify species at all, more medicinal and engineering innovations than you could shake a stick at, plastics, composites and carbon nanotubes, palaeontology, relativity, genomes, and even the speed of spontaneous combustion of a burrito (why? well why the f&%$ not?). Yeah, we’ve come a long way.

The basis for all this change occurred during the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. The precise cause of this change somewhat unknown- there was no great upheaval, but more of a general feeling that ‘hey, science is great, let’s do something with it!’. Some would argue that the idea that there was any change in the pace of science itself is untrue, and that the groundwork for this period of advancing scientific knowledge was largely done by Muslim astronomers and mathematicians several centuries earlier. Others may say that the increasing political and social changes that came with the Renaissance not only sent society reeling slightly, rendering it more pliable to new ideas and boundary-pushing, but also changed the way that the rich and noble functioned. Instead of barons, dukes and the nobility simply resting on their laurels and raking in the cash as the feudal system had previously allowed them to, an increasing number of them began to contribute to the arts and sciences, becoming agents of change and, in the cases of some, agents in the advancement of science.

It took a long time for science to gain any real momentum. For many a decade, nobody was ever a professional scientist or even engineer, and would generally study in their spare time. Universities were typically run by monks and populated by the sons of the rich or the younger sons of nobles- they were places where you both lived and learned expensively, but were not the centres of research that they are nowadays. They also contained a huge degree of resistance to the ideas put forward by Aristotle and others that had been rediscovered at the start of the revolution, and as such trying to get one’s new ideas taken seriously was a severe task. As such, just as many scientists were merely people who were interested in a subject and rich and intelligent enough to dabble in it as they were people committed to learning. Then there was the notorious religious problem- whilst the Church had no problem with most scientific endeavours, the rise of astronomy began one long and ceaseless feud between the Pope and physics into the fallibility of the bible, and some, such as Galileo and Copernicus, were actively persecuted by the Church for their new claims. Some were even hanged. But by far the biggest stumbling block was the sheer number of potential students of science- most common people were peasants, who would generally work the land at their lord’s will, and had zero chance of gravitating their life prospects higher than that. So- there was hardly anyone to do it, it was really, really hard to make any progress in and you might get killed for trying. And yet, somehow, science just kept on rolling onwards. A new theory here, an interesting experiment here, the odd interesting conversation between intellectuals, and new stuff kept turning up. No huge amount, but it was enough to keep things ticking over.

But, as the industrial revolution swept Europe, things started to change. As revolutions came and went, the power of the people started to rise, slowly squeezing out the influence and control of aristocrats by sheer weight of numbers. Power moved from the monarchy to the masses, from the Lords to the Commons- those with real control were the entrepreneurs and factory owners, not old men sitting in country houses with steadily shrinking lands that they owned. Society began to become more fluid, and anyone (well, more people than previously, anyway), could become the next big fish by inventing something new. Technology began to become of ever-increasing importance, and as such so did its discovery. Research by experiment was ever-more accessible, and science began to gather speed. During the 20th century things really began to motor- two world wars prompted the search for new technologies to enter an even more frenzied pace, the universal schooling of children was breeding a new generation of thinkers, and the idea of a university as a place of learning and research became more cemented in popular culture. Anyone could think of something new, and in that respect everyone was a scientist.

And this, to me, is the key to the world we live in today- a world in which a dozen or so scientific papers are published every day for branches of science relevant largely for their own sake. But this isn’t the true success story of science. The real success lies in the products and concepts we see every day- the iPhone, the pharmaceuticals, the infrastructure. The development of none of these discovered a new effect, a new material, or enabled us to better understand the way our thyroid gland works, and in that respect they are not science- but they required someone to think a little bit, to perhaps try a different way of doing something, to face a challenge. They pushed us forward one, tiny inexorable step, put a little bit more knowledge into the human race, and that, really, is the secret. There are 7 billion of us on this planet right now. Imagine if every single one contributed just one step forward.

The Age of Reason

Science is a wonderful thing- particularly in the modern age where the more adventurous (or more willing to tempt fate, depending on your point of view) like to think that most of science is actually pretty well done and dusted. I mean, yes there are a lot of the little details we have yet to work out, but the big stuff, the major hows and whys, have been basically sorted out. We know why there are rainbows, why quantum tunnelling composite appears to defy basic logic, and even why you always seem to pick the slowest queue- science appears to have got it pretty much covered.

[I feel I must take this opportunity to point out one of my favourite stories about the world of science- at the start of the 20th century, there was a prevailing attitude among physicists that physics was going to last, as an advanced science, for about another 20 years or so. They basically presumed that they had worked almost everything out, and now all they had to do was to tie up all the loose ends. However, one particular loose end, the photoelectric effect, simply refused to budge by their classical scientific laws. The only person to come up with a solution was Max Planck who, by modelling light (which everyone knew was a wave) as a particle instead, opened the door to the modern age of quantum theory. Physics as a whole took one look at all the new questions this proposed and, as one, took a collective facepalm.]

In any case, we are now at such an advanced stage of the scientific revolution, that there appears to be nothing, in everyday life at least, that we cannot, at least in part, explain. We might not know, for example, exactly how the brain is wired up, but we still have enough of an understanding to have a pretty accurate guess as to what part of it isn’t working properly when somebody comes in with brain damage. We don’t get exactly why or how photons appear to defy the laws of logic, but we can explain enough of it to tell you why a lens focuses light onto a point. You get the idea.

Any scientist worth his salt will scoff at this- a chemist will bang on about the fact that nanotubes were only developed a decade ago and will revolutionise the world in another, a biologist will tell you about all the myriad of species we know next to nothing about, and the myriad more that we haven’t discovered yet, and a theoretical physicist will start quoting logical impossibilities and make you feel like a complete fool. But this is all, really, rather high-level science- the day-to-day stuff is all pretty much done. Right?

Well… it’s tempting to think so. But in reality all the scientists are pretty correct- Newton’s great ocean of truth remains very much a wild and unexplored place, and not just in all the nerdy places that nobody without 3 separate doctorates can understand. There are some things that everybody, from the lowliest man in the street to the cleverest scientists, can comprehend completely and not understand in the slightest.

Take, for instance, the case of Sugar the cat. Sugar was a part-Persian with a hip deformity who often got uncomfortable in cars. As such when her family moved house, they opted to leave her with a neighbour. After a couple of weeks, Sugar disappeared, before reappearing 14 months later… at her family’s new house. What makes this story even more remarkable? The fact that Silky’s owners had moved from California to Oklahoma, and that a cat with a severe hip problem had trekked 1500 miles, over 100 a month,  to a place she had never even seen. How did she manage it? Nobody has a sodding clue.

This isn’t the only story of long-distance cat return, although Sugar holds the distance record. But an ability to navigate that a lot of sat navs would be jealous of isn’t the only surprising oddity in the world of nature. Take leopards, for example. The most common, and yet hardest to find and possibly deadliest of ‘The Big Five’, everyone knows that they are born killers. Humans, by contrast, are in many respects born prey- we are slow over short distances, have no horns, claws, long teeth or other natural defences, are fairly poor at hiding and don’t even live in herds for safety in numbers. Especially vulnerable are, of course, babies and young children, who by animal standards take an enormously long time to even stand upright, let alone mature. So why exactly, in 1938, were a leopard and her cubs found with a near-blind human child who she had carried off as a baby five years ago. Even more remarkable was the superlative sense of smell the child had, being able to differentiate between different people and even objects with nothing more than a good sniff- which also reminds me of a video I saw a while ago of a blind Scottish boy who can tell what material something is made of and how far away it is (well enough to play basketball) simply by making a clicking sound with his mouth.

I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say in this post- I have a sneaking suspicion my subconscious simply wanted to give me an excuse to share some of the weirdest stories I have yet to see on Cracked.com. So, to round off, I’ll leave you with a final one. In 1984 a hole was found in a farm in Washington State, about 3 metres by 2 and around 60cm deep. 25 metres away, the three tons of grass-covered earth that had previously filled the hole was found- completely intact, in a single block. One person described it as looking like it had been cut away with ‘a gigantic cookie cutter’, but this failed to explain why all of the roots hanging off it were intact. There were no tracks or any distinguishing feature apart from a dribble of earth leading between hole and divot, and the closest thing anyone had to an explanation was to lamely point out that there had been a minor earthquake 20 miles ago a week beforehand.

When I invent a time machine, forget killing Hitler- the first thing I’m doing is going back to find out what the &*^% happened with that hole.