The Goal of Science
Albert Einstein published his two main papers early in his life, in 1905. He spent most of his working life at the Institute of Advanced Studies in the US where
Einstein pursued the goal of a unified field theory, and did so at a time when the goal of unifying the four fundamental forces of nature – gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force – had been set aside by the majority of working physicists. In recent years, this has again become a central goal of physicists.
Perhaps the most famous scientist since Einstein is Stephen Hawkins whose story was portrayed in a 2015 movie, “The Theory of Everything”:
My goal is simple. It is complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.
These are the grand goals of science but getting there starts at a more elementary level.
In the normal course of life we make OBSERVATIONS which lead us to ask QUESTIONS such as why, how and under what circumstances? Generally, we expect to find a CAUSE AND EFFECT sequence.
We develop a possible answer to the questions, an HYPOTHESIS, and then devise an EXPERIMENT to test the hypothesis. The results of this might lead to more questions, to modifying or dumping the hypothesis or to verifying it.
When we are confident of the results of our tests we share or publish them. It is a requirement that others be able to replicate the tests so that eventually the hypothesis becomes widely accepted but always open to challenge, testing and modification.
An hypothesis may become so well validated that it is called a LAW. Generally, a law describes a fairly particular relationship such as that between the electric current in a conductor, the enrgy supplied and a property called the resistance of the conductor, as in Ohm’s Law, or to define the gravitational attraction of two bodies which have mass as in Newton’s Law of Gravitation.
A THEORY may be a well-established hypothesis or a collection of hypotheses and also, perhaps, laws. It will probably encompass more than a law. A law or a theory might be so well established that it used as if it is proven, a FACT.
How confident can we be?
It is understood that all scientific statements are open to challenge, test, modification or abandonment, but some have been so widely tested that the practical thing to do is to work with them as facts while all the time knowing that an observation or idea might arise leading not so much to a disproof of the statement as to a development of it. The Theory of Evolution is an example of this.
The assumption is that it is possible to work out absolutely reliable laws which are true everywhere in the universe and true for all of time past, present and future. In almost every case we are limited to testing the laws to locations here on Earth and to the time range of the present and fairly recent past.
Perhaps the only law about which have confidence that it is true in all of time and space is Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation: “The gravitational attraction between two bodies is directly dependent upon the masses of both objects and inversely proportional to the square of the distance that separates their centres.” This property seems to describe the force holding galaxies and systems together throughout the space of the universe, and our observations of it doing so come from light which left distant galaxies many light years ago. This is about as universal as a law can get!
Of the other scientific laws only The Laws of Thermodynamics are widely regarded as being unquestionable. In simple terms they state (1) the total energy in the universe is unchanging; it can neither be created nor destroyed but may be transformed, (2) Entropy, which means disorder and unusable energy as compared with concentrations of usable energy, is inevitably increasing, (3) eventually all parts of the universe will be at the same, absolute zero temperature.
These laws mean that to bring about order in places like planets, animals and plants concentrations of energy are converted to new ordered locations with an overall increase in scattered energy. Disorder or chaos is the natural state in the universe!
Is Seeing Believing?
In many cases, yes, but in important areas of science the arguments in favour of theories we hold are almost entirely circumstantial and the conclusions are outside our capacity to experience.
For example, electrons cannot be seen – they are smaller than the wavelength of light with which we see. A variety of observations have been made and explained in considerable quantity by the hypothetical existence of electrons – enough for us to talk of them and work with them as factual, even though the evidence is circumstantial.
If we could perform an experiment to measure exactly where an electron is at any moment we would then have no idea how fast it was moving – a result of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
Also, if we took observations that showed us an electron is a small object with mass it would at the same time have no properties to indicate it was some form of wave motion. However, if our observations allowed us to measure the wave properties of an electron then at that time it would not be a particle. We have no way of visualizing these duality of properties which Quantum Theory describes because such small particle behaviour is completely outside our range of experiences.
I agree with Kelvin, after whom we name the absolute temperature scale, that Science is the business of thinking God’s thoughts after him.
We have before us an amazing universe which declares the existence and glories of God. We have been given pointers to tell us God created this wonder, that he did it but not how he did it. At the same time we have his authority and the intelligence he granted us to have the satisfaction of trying to understand it all, how it works and how to responsibly live in it.
As have many others who have studied sciences I am increasingly able to admire the works of God. I cannot fully grasp the greatness of God – he is so much greater than I am and beyond my experience and understanding, just as I cannot grasp the beautiful wave/particle duality of fundamental particles because they are so small as to be beyond my experience and understanding. However, I know that both are true!
As science continues to work towards a complete, uniform understanding of the universe so we will at some time in the future see that it is part of a complete, uniform understanding of God the creator.