Friday, September 23, 2011

Don't get too excited

The recent news about the speed of light being possibly exceeded by neutrinos is bound to set off lots of silly speculation. If I remember the little bit of the theory of special relativity that I ever learned, an object's mass moves to infinity as the speed of light is approached, and ever-increasing amounts of energy are required. I think time slows down too. So you wonder how light ever gets there - those photons know a thing or two.

One line of argument that religious fundamentalists use is that all science is unproven theory - hence evolution is only an unproven theory, alongside (they would allege) creationism, which they find altogether more convincing. I suspect we'll see people suggesting that if the speed of light (or the constant, "c") isn't what science thought it was, then how can we believe archaeology and carbon dating. Well, I guess it needs some honesty on both sides.

Of course all scientific understanding is based on ideas developed from experiments, which have been refined (and on occasion overthrown) by new data or results. However, that doesn't mean all scientific results are wildly removed from the truth; they may correct, they may just be 0.001% out, or the error may be larger. So the scientific establishment always has to have some degree of humility and openness, although it's usually broadly correct. Otherwise the technology on which we all depend would be completely unavailable, (instead of a little erratic).

But the religious who are anti-scientific have to ask themselves why they are so keen to discredit those who work so hard to understand the universe we live in. There is a strong Christian tradition of exploring and scientific investigation, which saw that endeavour as godly activity. So when science first challenged what appeared to be the Bible's chronology, the obvious thing to do was ask whether we were reading the Bible correctly, or were we asking it to yield data it was never intended to impart?

In a sense the same question is relevant to the scientific method. When scientists become obsessed with a result, they can 'read' the material world in a way that suits their purpose - personal pride has been known to taint objectivity even in a laboratory. We may have to review how constant the speed of light is, or it may be folks at CERN making mistakes or even someone wanting a headline. There may not be as much dark matter as they used to think, either.

Whatever the consensus that emerges, I hope that Christians and others with religious faith don't start to see it as some sort of 'victory' over science, because it isn't. This is an exciting moment. Science may have made an important discovery that affects how we understand the Universe, and if that is a better understanding, then we are all winners.
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