Sunday, November 27, 2005

Mystique of physics

The latest issue of American Journal of Physics carries Millikan Award lecture of John S. Rigden. An extremely interesting essay - here are some sample quotes:
Against this rich background I ask: Could the people of the 21st century reverse the transformation that occurred 200 years ago by rejecting the methods of science in favor of the assertions by authority?

It is not my purpose to examine the challenges that now confront the science instructor and the science classroom. Today, a number of state legislatures, many state departments of education, and many, many local school boards are currently exerting their authorities as they consider actions that would mandate what is taught and how it is taught in the science classroom. Equally troubling, the very definition of science is being challenged with the goal of bringing into the science classroom material that lies outside the scope of the current definition. This could change science as we know it.

I believe these challenges are serious.

The crucial issue is not the belief in a Divine Designer; in fact, to examine the intricacies of Nature and to see evidence of design is thoroughly rational. The Divine Designer belief is, per se no threat to science. If, however, it is denied that physical laws drive natural processes, if it is denied that physical laws initiate chains of cause and effect that culminate in the beautiful world we observe, if it is denied that science is mechanistic and deterministic, and if these denials become part of the science classroom, then science as we know it is dead. Are the delicate filigrees of frost on a cold window pane caused by anything other than natural mechanism driven by physical law? Are the cosmic wonders revealed by the Hubble space telescope anything other than physical laws working over billions of years?
Debates pitting faith-based beliefs against empirical-based beliefs, have not worked and, in my judgment, will not work. They have not worked because, as always, debates degenerate into point-counterpoint exchanges that only embolden the debaters. Debates heat emotions, but freeze minds. In the context of passionate belief, debating is a negative strategy.
On July 7, 2005, the Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn, laid out the position of the Catholic Church on the subject of evolution. However, the argument the cardinal developed was more general than evolution and implicitly, it embraced all science. In the New York Times the cardinal began by quoting the late John Paul II. "We believe," said the Pope, "that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of necessity whatever, not blind fate or chance." Cardinal Schönborn concluded: "Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of `chance and necessity' are not scientific at all, abdication of human intelligence."

Both the Pope and the cardinal denied necessity. Both the Pope and the cardinal are mistaken. If you believe that the physical world is a consequence of physical law, then what we observe is the consequence of necessity. Masses attract out of necessity; energy is conserved out of necessity; the neutron decays out of necessity; and out of necessity, DNA in the gametes determines the characteristics of the resulting organism. There is no choice, there are no alternatives. The laws of physics undergird all science; if the laws of physics, operating out of necessity, are denied in any tributary of science, then the main stream of the entire scientific enterprise is dangerously compromised.

The Enlightenment showed that Reason and the reasoned approach to unlocking the secrets of Nature had enormous appeal to Homo Sapiens, the thinking animal. The physicists of the 19th century brought physics to the forefront of people's thinking and left them with the confidence that the claims of physics could be believed. I suggest we relumine the Enlightenment. I suggest we emulate 19th-century physicists. I suggest we capitalize on the mystique of physics. I suggest we provide students with positive examples that demonstrate what physicists believe and why they believe it.
A nice read; it also contains many ideas to think about and a bit of history, if you are so inclined.


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