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What Do We Know?

Entry 839, on 2008-08-25 at 20:48:26 (Rating 2, Science)

I'm currently listening to an audio book called "Death by Black Hole" by well known science populariser Neil deGrasse Tyson. Its a series of essays on various subjects (mainly astronomy) and one of the first essays was about what we do and do not know about the universe.

Many people know about the famous comments by people like Lord Kelvin who said that science already knew all the important information about the universe that there was to know and that in future it would just be a matter of filling in the details. That was a few years before the two great modern theories of science: relativity and quantum theory. Looking back we knew almost nothing then!

So what is the situation today? Are we any closer to having the ultimate truth now than we were then? Well I would hope that we are closer because the two theories I mentioned above have allowed us to understand many phenomena which would be impossible otherwise. And many other lesser theories and discoveries have been made as well.

Unfortunately we keep discovering things we don't understand which means that for every phenomenon explained there seems to be two new phenomena which we didn't know about before and that we now can't explain. So is discovering more but not being able to explain it better or worse than not even knowing the problem exists?

There are a couple of areas where I think this is particularly relevant today. First there is the troublesome issue of finding a way to make quantum theory and general relativity work together. This is like an extension of the problem of Newtonian gravitation not working in extreme situations like black holes. Now relativity might not work in even more extreme situations like the Big Bang. The question is does quantum theory work there any better and how do the two co-exist.

The other issue which really perplexes me is dark matter and dark energy. If you had told me a few years ago that we know nothing about 95% of the mass in the Universe I would not believe you. The same goes for the discovery that the rate of expansion of the Universe is increasing. That just doesn't make sense.

So it seems that the more we know the more we discover that we don't know. That's OK though because even though there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the extremes of knowledge the understanding we have of the more mundane is very good. Relativity, for example, allows exquisite precision in GPS systems. And quantum theory has allowed the invention of many new electronic devices.

So as much as we don't know we can be confident that there is a lot we do know. That's why I reject arguments from people who believe in pseudo-science and religious myths when they say that there's a lot that science doesn't know so that means that their beliefs are just as good.

It's true that there is a lot which isn't well understood but there are two observations I would make concerning that. First we don't reject pseudoscience and religion based on the science we don't know, we reject it based on what we do know. And there have been very few, if any, situations where a major scientific theory has been shown to be completely wrong.

And second, the only reason we know about the things we don't understand is because we are looking. Accepting a body of dogma through faith, habit or tradition might get you to the situation where you think you know everything but I would rather know only a little bit about everything than know everything about nothing!


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