23 April 2017

The child-like simplicity of some Natural Scientists (1)

I once read an article in New Scientist, exulting (as I must confess I also do) in then-recent Pluto fly-past, which enquired 'where we go to next'. The author replied to his own question by suggesting a visit to Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighbouring star, which is a mere four light-years away. Acknowledging that a space-craft constructed in accordance with our current technology would take a rather long time to get there, he nevertheless enthusiastically urged such a project on the grounds that it would be tremendously exciting for our descendants, in 100,000 years, to be getting the pictures (and other data) back.

I think this sort of sweet and child-like simplicity really marks out the instinctive differences between those like me, bred to cynicism and scepticism in the Humanities, and what I will call the naive journalism-end of Science writing. (I put it like this because, during my teaching career, I had colleagues, published scientists, who were men and women of very broad interests and formidable intelligence, whom I have no desire to patronise or insult.) For me, litteris humanioribus nutritus, nothing is more obvious than that the interests and assumptions and intellectual fashions of our species vary hugely from year to year, generation to generation, century to century, millennium to millennium. My own immensely shallow forays into intellectual history have included the 1930s, the 1840s, the 1630s, the 1490s, the Classical Roman World, the Classical Greek World ... in other words, brief, superficial  forays into brief periods spread over a little more than two thousand years. Many readers will recall that a very able mind, Mgr Ronald Knox, described with erudition and brilliance the mutating preoccupations in a fictional Oxford Senior Common Room by eaves-dropping its after-dinner conversations at fifty year intervals from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries (Let Dons Delight).

Of course, I may be wrong, and I grant you the liberty to be quite certain that I am. But I have to say that nothing strikes me as more totally, mind-blowingly, absurdly improbable than the idea that, in 100,000 years, our human descendants, assuming that we have any, will be possessed of interests even remotely similar to those of early twenty-first century astronomers. 

Anyone who can believe that (I feel inclined to say) will believe anything.


Aitch said...

I'm surprised that you read New Scientist, it really has changed over the years and is now mostly half understood science written by journalists from what you describe very aptly as "the naive journalism-end of Science writing", but then I suppose we all need a little light relief from time to time. I'm a semi-retired scientist with a few publications to my name and I can now no longer take NS seriously, thanks anyway for the underlying point, it would be amusing to fast-forward 100,000 years to see if NS was able to report great excitement at the receiving of pictures and data from Alpha Centauri. Of course the famous 'warp drive' used in Star Trek could have been finally invented and our ancestors would not have to wait so long.

Mike said...

That humans, left to their own devices, *will* believe anything is one of the clearest, saddest truths of human history.

Belfry Bat said...

Dear Fr, I think you've hit upon what some mathematicians call "solution-blindness", where having settled on one answer to such a question as "what is there of interest in the universe of space" it becomes impossible to think of other answers. That is, if someone actually believes that close-up pictures from the α-Centauri system would be intrinsically interesting, then he cannot conceive of future-scientists not being so interested... I'm more struck by the writer's unfashionably dismal estimation of future space travel technology: if our descendents so far out have been continually interested in Centauri, and have done nothing to get there quicker, and remember so long that any of us once started such a project... how hard can they really have been trying? Hardly a Star Trek imagination, that. Now, a Star Trek imagination would say: let us send this thing out there and then try to catch up with it!

But I'm not convinced the journalist you quote actually believes what he has written, or anything else for that matter, except that it pays (him) well to write fanciful stuff and call it "inspiring".

Michael Leahy said...

Scientists still propagate as undeniable truth a Darwinian theory that is absolutely indefensible and prop up a failing Big Bang theory with 'dark matter' of which there is not a whit of hard evidence-the ultimate cooking of the books. Nor have the vast majority faced up to the implications of Quantum Theory and the mathematics of Godel and Dembski.

Unknown said...

I'm afraid, father, that I think that you have a very good point let down by an unfortunate instance.

It's certainly true that there are a large number of people in this country who have accreted a naively sentimental set of intellectual commitments, ethical convictions, and aesthetic considerations around the conceptual categories of "science" and "progress" (&c.) -- and that these categories and intellectual commitments usually bear no more than a superficial relationship with either the fine-grained matter or the method of the actual natural sciences.

And that of these people, the larger part have a characteristically narrow set of models and frames with which to view the behaviour, tastes and ideas of people of even the very recent past -- frames which often have a great deal to do with on the one hand their seeming inability to understand the lived experience of religious commitment, and on the other a whiggish desire to see in all past human nobility something that inclines or disposes the exemplar towards the beliefs and feelings of the present age.

This constrains their ability to predict, not the pace, but the nature of historical change -- they often have a rather wild ability to conceive of rapid technological and ethical development, but always along lines that are not only imagined to emerge predictably from the present, but in conformity with the aspirations of that present.

And so you'll see that I follow you entirely, and only think that you fall at the last hurdle -- space, and the other objects of the natural world, are admittedly not of interest in the same sense and with the same meaning to every historical generation. But I'd nonetheless dare to venture that they bear an intrinsic interest to human beings, and that, given a sufficient number of generations, the mores of some period of some society would bear sufficient relation to this particular project that they would find it to be of some interest.

It's just that it would be more like the relationship between the Dream of Scipio and JFK's address at Rice University -- an incidental one arising from the intellectual attraction of the matter, rather than one of any straightforward cultural kinship.

Ed Ahlsen-Girard said...

The greatest drawback of the scheme is the likelihood that the encoding scheme will have been misplaced and that the pictures will be unreadable, or even unreceived. Because for about 80000 of those years there will be little of interest, so nobody will have had a career incentive to preserve the capability.

Mike Cliffson said...

Progress IS usally a materialists' idol or made one, progressives heretics at best and typically humansacrificing idolators, but I can't consider materialist contactivism a godly alternative.
Being judgemental, accepting however halfheartedly the megabillion dollar per day scam and swindle of the warmist glob¨, pullulating with watermelons, gaiaworshippers, antihuman humans, contractionist whinging defeatists and the like , but rejecting however simplistic and naive a manifestacion of exploration outward , which would cost less than one percent of one day's worldwipe rip-off, looks, in my proud opinion, very like swallowing a camel and straining at a gnat.
Only that which is eternal is really important , but pace G.Orwell the great temporal achievements of Christendom beyond individual lifetimes, thought ahead, example, "capability" Brown's parkscapes, have been achieved by mortal Christians over the past centuries BECAUSE they believed they had an immortal soul, accelerating after the fall of constantinople and the discovery of America. This includes that optimism infusing mental and physical and scientific exploration. You get a better world trusting the unworldly than the worldly.
Alpha century is THERE , like Everest, like the Atom. Why not send probe thither, broadcasting it's surroundings all the way . If the last trump (no pun intended) hasn't blown before anyone sees data on a new-to-us solar system or faster means ARE found, so what? A shot gun approach can get you a long way in a lot of fields.

Joshua said...

Prior to Kepler and Newton, planets were believed to move in complicated paths traced out by underlying uniform circular motions (as seen from the equant) of the epicycle upon the deferent (whose centre was the eccentric).

When materials burnt, they gave off phlogiston… that is, they didn't, rather they reacted with oxygen.

In the late nineteenth century, scientists were confident they understood all things - light, for example, propagated through the luminiferous aether, as nature abhors a vacuum. Then the Michelson-Morley experiment failed to find any evidence for the aether…

In the early twenty-first century, it is accepted by scientists that the vast majority of the total mass-energy of the Universe exists in the forms of dark matter and dark energy, of both of which we know nothing.

I find no reason to suppose that the science of the twenty-fifth century (should this miserable and naughty world endure so long) will be free from ideas subsequently found to be in error, or that in the twenty-sixth century science will have at last discovered and understood all things.

Why on earth our minds should be considered capable of comprehending all things is beyond me; it seems the height of hubris, and "pride cometh before a fall, and a haughty spirit before destruction" (Proverbs 16:18). It is hard enough to come to any deep knowledge even of our own self, whom we know better than all else and in a manner inaccessible to all others.

As J. B. S. Haldane more cogently and humbly said, "The Universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine."

We must give thanks for all that we can and do know, and for the good things advances in science have brought, while remembering always that the more we understand, the more the great order and symmetry of the Universe is revealed, pointing ineluctably to the Creator.

I write as a holder of a Bachelor's degree in science, with double major in mathematics and physics, and Honours in optical astronomy, and as a holder of a Master's degree in theology. I know just enough of each to know how profoundly ignorant I remain.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

"Science" teaches ABS that chickens evolved from the T-Rex., so there's that to consider.

On the other hand, only, roughly, 1% of all scientific papers are reproducible and so ABS predicts that the scientists of today will evolve into the garbage scow pilots of tomorrow.

Stephen said...

Does not time-travel, by definition, render itself irrelevant?

Tom Mazanec said...

I have a proposition for what to visit next...Pluto's outer sister, the dwarf planet Eris. We should be able to do a flyby in a few decades.

Tom Mazanec said...

I have a suggestion where to go next...Eris, beyond Pluto, which we could reach in a few decades.