Thursday, September 24, 2015

The mystery of too many variables

Standard theory of particle physics
We have now two great physical theories:
·         On one side, quantum mechanics, which applies primarily to very small objects (those scarcely affected by gravity), and is the basic tool for the standard theory of particle physics.
·         On the other, general relativity, which applies to very large objects (from the planets to the whole universe, those for which almost nothing matters except gravity), and is the main tool for the standard cosmological (Big Bang) theory.
Unfortunately, the two theories are not mutually compatible, so that physics is far from having resolved its outstanding issues. Moreover, these two theories depend on about forty independent variables. Many physicists think that they are too many. If it were true, it would mean that the configuration space of nature has about forty dimensions. If it is difficult to imagine a four-dimensional space, what about forty!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The sin of the scientist

Isaac Asimov
In an article published in 1969 with the same title as this one, Isaac Asimov argued that science should be subject to ethical constraints, and analyzed several cases in which a scientific discovery could be considered morally unacceptable. I consider here a few cases, not necessarily the same as those chosen by Asimov, and later will comment on his conclusion.
  • The medical experiments with the Jews in concentration camps by Dr. Mengele and other Nazi doctors, or by the Japanese with their American prisoners. Even in such a blatant case, the perpetrators could find an ethical justification on their deeds, arguing that, as their victims were inferior beings who had no right to life, it was right to use them for experiments that could be beneficial to other human beings that enjoyed that right. It is an unacceptable justification, but they probably used it to silence their conscience.
  • The two atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. This act of war killed over 200,000 non-combatant civilians. During most of Western history, including the first World War, this would have been considered unacceptable. The justification was that dropping the bombs saved the lives of thousands of soldiers, who would have died if the fighting had been prolonged. Is this enough, or are we again comparing the lives of two groups of human beings, some of which are considered more valuable than others? Anyway, Sergeant Leroy Lehman, who recognized Hiroshima before the release of the bomb, ended his days in a monastery.
  • The same argument (that the lives of some human beings are more valuable than those of others) has been used in other circumstances. Sometimes, to increase the strength of the argument, even the human quality of the victims is denied. Some cases are obvious, both in history (slavery) and now (abortion).
First atomic bomb explosion in Alamogordo
In his article, Asimov concluded that there are cases where science has led to morally unjustifiable progress, and pointed at the invention of mustard gas, the first poisonous gas, whose sole purpose was killing human beings. It is noteworthy that the author of this discovery (Fritz Haber) was later awarded the Nobel Prize, not for mustard gas, of course, but for other important findings in the field of chemistry (a process for synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen).

Manuel Alfonseca

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The end of science

Servers at LAAS
by Guillaume Paumier
Licensed under CC BY 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons
In my previous article I wrote this: perhaps our scientific civilization won’t endure beyond this century. This is what I mean by the title of this article (the end of science), rather than the possibility that science is over because it has already discovered everything that can be discovered, which is very unlikely, as I pointed out in another post.
Science has been an integral part of our civilization for centuries, more than is usually believed, for scientific activity was already palpable during the Middle Ages. Isn’t it absurd to predict that such activity can be ended? How might this happen? Here I propose a few, far from exhaustive considerations:

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The horizon effect

We are well aware of the horizon effect: as we walk towards the horizon, the horizon gets further away. In science sometimes this effect seems to apply. Let us look at a few examples:
Mycoplasma genitalium genetic map
  • Synthetic biology: In 1960, producing living cells in the laboratory was predicted to be feasible by 1970. In 2015, Craig Venter (1) sees it feasible soon, perhaps by 2030. It is true that we have come very far, that great strides have been made, but the ultimate goal seems to be always at the same distance, or even a little further away. Moreover, the origin of life remains a mystery. The simplest being able to live independently (Mycoplasma genitalium) is very complicated, light-years away from the hypothetical first living being.