Michael Battalio

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Serious conversations (part 69): What is science - part 7

This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine.  These are my edited responses from that conversation.  The sixty-third – seventieth entries deal with the nature of science.

So far we’ve covered the hierarchy of the sciences, defined science, and given examples, but what about math?

While we’ve considered history a science is a very loose sense of the word, what place does math and purely theoretical efforts have in our description of science.  I think string theory is science.  Reviewing my definition that science is a systematic observation of nature to find facts to describe the universe, string theory fits that mold.  It is a description of existence governed by formulae.  The fact that there are no testable predictions does not disqualify it as a science.  Merely, it makes it less useful.  Just because we don’t have the technology to probe the planck length to determine if electrons are actually strings does not make it not a science.  If it turns out string theory is wrong, then yes, it is fun games with math, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t science at the time.  The goal is still observation and description.  Science requires the proper means just as much as the ends.  It would become no different than the hypothesis of spontaneous generation.  It is ridiculous now but still science then.  Even in hindsight, it is still science.  A negative result is still a result.  A disproven hypothesis is still science.  Thusly string theory (and loop quantum gravity and other theories of physics revolving around the unification of forces that cannot and probably will not be disproven) are science.

Is math a science?  In my cursory survey of some philosophies of some mathematicians/scientists (if you want to kill an afternoon, google ‘is math a science’), I think that math is a governor of science but not a science itself.  Science requires math but not vice versa.  In science, there are laws that are discovered that are not influenced by the science itself.  We are attempting to reverse-engineer the universe.  In math, it can be the other way around.  A set of laws (axioms) is assumed, and then the consequences of those choices are explored.  Math is also aesthetic.  It can be beautiful; it is what provides the beauty of some string theories.  The symmetry of them is appealing. (Perhaps that is why so many theoreticians are enamored with it.)  So back to the definition of science:  it requires observation to describe reality.  Math does not necessarily do that; therefore it is not a science.  Math a describe possible realities including our own.  What gives us the reason to use a particular set of axioms?  Observation (i.e. science).  

Friday, May 06, 2016

Serious conversations (part 68): What is science - part 6

This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine.  These are my edited responses from that conversation.  The sixty-third – seventieth entries deal with the nature of science.

We’ve previously spent a lot of space on who is a scientist.  Now I consider the hierarchy of the sciences.

  I also want to take a moment to comment on the hierarchy of science.  In my academic career I’ve gotten the general impression that physics looks down on the other sciences as being lesser, easier, and derivative.  This is somewhat true as all the other sciences are in some way or another applied physics.  (I also feel the disdain of pure theorists who look down on experimentalists.  That is a different conversation.)  One reason I’ve always been drawn to physics even though I’m reasonably happy as a atmospheric dynamist is that I feel that physics is somehow a higher pursuit, and at times I still regret having gone into atmospheric science in the first place when I think I would be much happier in particle physics or astrophysics.  I often wonder why it is I think like that.  It could perhaps be because of how late physics is taught it us in high school.  I was not formally introduced to physics until my senior year of high school, but we are taught biology, Earth science, and chemistry earlier.  This makes physics seem more advanced.  Or it could be because physics is less connected to the other science than other sciences are to each other (think of how connected biology is to chemistry).  

I’m still not satisfied on why physics is thought of as the highest pursuit.  I get that physics is more mathematically involved, and in many ways it is harder that the rest of the “hard” sciences.  But why is it harder?  Can it just because of the math required to understand or manipulate the theory?  Could it because it can be so counterintuitive at times?  I cannot think of any other field that can be more counterintuitive than quantum mechanics, mostly because all the other sciences deal with larger length scales.  I don’t think I’ll ever get a good answer on why I think physics is a “higher” pursuit.  It simply is.
2003-2016 Michael Battalio (michael[at]battalio.com)