Hold this newspaper firmly in your hand, placing distinct pressure on your thumb. Each second, millions upon millions of tiny particles, traveling near the speed of light, careen straight through your thumb on their escape route from the sun.
These particles are neutrinos, and are of such small size that many trillions pass through the Earth – and everything on its surface – with only rare collisions. If we could see neutrinos, we would notice a continual blizzard – day and night – raining more furiously than the most powerful monsoon.
The speed of light is 186,000 km per second. To imagine such a speed, pretend you are on the equator with your best running shoes. You start running and attain such a speed that you run around the Earth seven times in a single second. That is the speed of light!
Yet when you approach that speed your friends begin to notice strange things. For one, your motions and your biological processes slow down: your watch runs slower than your friends’ watches. And despite the time you spent on your hair and clothes this morning, your appearance is barely noticeable, for you are as flat as a pancake! You have shrunk in the direction of your motion so that you are merely a cardboard cut-out of your former self. But don’t worry – you see the same effects in your friends, and your eyeliner or gelled-back hair seem just fine to you.
These short stories could belong in the most creative work of literature, but will never be seen in any fiction book. They are not fiction; they are, in fact, incredible truths about our universe which lay buried behind the veil of subjectivity from which we humans must escape if an accurate view of reality is of interest to us. It is science that frees us from these illusions, and allows us to see the universe clearly.
In this respect science is distinct; it is not a philosophical arena where no discussion can be simplified past two contradicting, but ultimately equally believable, ideas. In lieu of lengthy philosophical discussions, science relies on evidence.
The reason for this is that the most difficult aspect of attaining an accurate view of the world is not in determining those things that are true, but in determining those things that are false. There are virtually an infinite number of explanations for gravity that could be true, but that doesn’t mean we should teach all of them in classrooms. So which ones should we teach? Which ones are actually likely to be true?
Well, we take the predictions made by each one and we test them. For example, Albert Einstein’s theory is widely accepted because it has made highly persuasive predictions about the curvature of space and time, which have been verified. Quantum mechanics is thought likely to be true because its predictions about the nature of things smaller than atoms are so accurate that scientist Richard Feynman once likened them to predicting the length of North America to the accuracy of one human hair. But what shall be the fate of all of the other explanations not supported by evidence?
It is imperative to the vitality of rational thought that such explanations be viewed with suspicion – especially specific, grandiose ones. If there are virtually an infinite number of explanations for gravity for which there is no evidence, than any individual one is not likely to be any more true than any other. Therefore, each one is highly unlikely to be correct.
It is for this reason that assertions of alien abduction, ghosts and the myriad of other such beliefs should be viewed with suspicion. Of course they could be true; but so could literally any other assertion, including Thor and Zeus. And even the ones which appear to make accurate predictions are often fallacious.
It could be argued that astrology, for example, makes accurate predictions. In fact, it does! Yet so would any collection of predictions – even random ones – which were as vague as the one I found in last week’s Signal, for example: “Don’t let others try to make you feel inferior this week. Your ideas and opinions are just as acceptable as other people’s.” It is an accurate prediction, indeed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t my horoscope! No worries, because all the others were correct as well. In fact, I would bet that virtually every horoscope is accurate in one way or another for most people.
We scientists are passionate about truth because it is a gift that we must cherish. Humans are the only known aggregate of matter in the universe that can reason. With this gift we have developed modern medicine, created every technology more advanced than the wooden shoe and sent humans to the moon. Reason may stop us from believing, but it opens our minds to understanding.