I am sitting in the back of a lecturing room in Centro de Sciencias in Benasque one Thursday in September, starting the blog post from my first scientific conference ever. At the blackboard is a Japanese student speaking about some topic quite inconceivable — partly because of his rather interesting variant of English, and partly due to the technicality with which it is presented. I am tiered. Not that it hasn’t been an interesting conference. To the contrary I have had both an enjoyable stay and intellectual stimulus to the brim. Not only will I return with an enhanced understanding of theoretical cosmology, an extended network of fellow researchers within similar fields to my own and an deepened awareness of the many fields there are under the umbrella of cosmology. Additionally, some of the talks have to some extent shaken me in my faith in science. It is not that I have turned into a disbeliever or anything. I just woke up from my science induced slumber a couple of times, reminded of how easy it is to fall asleep during lectures — even lectures of life. One thing I realized is how insanely many theories there are on the market. Inasmuch as they are non-compatible with each other, they cannot all be right at the same time. I would guess that most theories developed are just quite simply…. wrong. That’s how science goes! You don’t know its wrong before you tried it out. As long as the available evidence is scarce enough, one is free to speculate and invent knew explanations. In theoretical physics we know this. Sometimes one better remember that there is a real world out there, with which your theories have to agree — or they are quite simply wrong! The fascinating conclusion, however, must still be that physics hits the ground standing on both feet. For even if the individual contribution might seem diminishing in most cases, the combined effort amounts to rather remarkable achievements in terms of falsifiable calculations. Quite frankly we seem to understand more and more physics as the lectures of time goes on. Better just don’t fall asleep, or somebody might whisper you a lie in the ear.
During the talks, the less modernized professors would occasionally express their concerns on the new developments in physics. One day midweek in the midday coffee break one of the defenders of the classical theories blamed the modern cosmologists for picking and choosing according to their own wish, which lead to nothing but sheer speculation and non-sense, he said promptly.
“Well — and that comes from you?” said his colleague, somewhat annoyed, before he added
“But you might as well be right…”
with an ironic, but disarming smile of phlegmatic diplomacy. I just stood there among the wise grey hairs grinning and hoped for the argument to stretch and last for as long as possible. The lovely atmosphere of rivaling friends would soon be interrupted by an expressive Spanish voice chasing us up for the next session.
One of the nights I ended up dining with an Oxford professor whose opinions on the accelerated expansion of the universe is rather controversial. Over a five cheese pizza the trust and mistrust, use and abuse of modern science was discussed back and forth. I was rather disturbed (but intrigued) to hear him confirm what rumors had it he pronounced in a lecture at the summer school that was running parallel to our conference at the center. In his preprint uploaded to arXiv, he and two others explain how they “…find, rather surprisingly, that the data are still quite consistent with a constant rate of expansion.“, The data considered in the paper is type 1a supernovae data. I have to say it was a rather interesting dinner. I mean; this is not a nobody; its an Oxford professor!
If there is no accelerated expansion of the universe, the whole community of theoretical physicists are building their theories around evidence that isn’t there. They are all living in a constructed lie that nobody sees.
The good thing with science, however, is that the truth seems to pervade in the end, even if it is slowed down by inertia induced by pride, stubbornness or other subjective factors. It pervades due to its explanatory power and simplifying beauty. Anyhow, as I read his paper (actually he is not the first author), I find that his claim is not as strong as I initially thought. Anyhow I am anticipating the discussion to follow if the paper comes out in a high class science journal (and if you were wondering: the big bang theory is not touched by his findings. Rather it would concern the entity typically called dark energy.). The Oxford professor and those who oppose his claims cannot simultaneously be right. One of the parties is wrong. This means one has to be mindful and discerning, even in a discipline like physics, which seemingly is built on pure logic.
The lesson I draw from all this is NOT that theoretical physics is a dead end! But I am reminded that even if the methods we use in physics are rock solid in terms of logic, it doesn’t help if the observational evidence isn’t there to discriminate between the different solutions available from the mathematical side. This is important to remember, and a disclaimer of my own future mistakes 😉 ( which hopefully there will be none of…). Those who believe in science (like myself) must not forget to clearly reveal the assumptions underlying our theories, and those who distrust science must likewise do so on a rational basis, and not cutting it off as wild speculations altogether, without giving a reason for doing so. Remember that — assuming we one day, whether it be gradually or abruptly, will know the truth — your privileged opinion or personal wishes doesn’t matter for a second in this respect.
I could have gone on to tell you about our hiking to Collo de Toro — a beautiful trip into the surrounding mountains (which reach as high as 3404m on the highest!). Or I could have spelled out the passion of prof. Elizaldes talk on the origin of the universe, as the Spanish professor gesticulated with his arms and as his voice passionately assumed tones along the whole spectra, all supporting the message he conveyed as he moved back and forth on the floor: much like an actor on stage. His talk pretty much amounted in being a disclaimer of Wikipedia as a good source to information.
Forgetting about the science part of my stay — but not leaving rationalism for a second — I could have rather told you about three lovely conversations I had on the topic of God. At three different occasions, each involving a different person, I had three distinctly characteristic talks on the most profound type of question a human mind can ask: Is there a God? Three bright, young researchers willingly grappled with me on the topic. One of them aggressively. Another reluctant but dismissive and the third one with an open mind.
Yes, I could have told you about this…
…but it would only amount in teaching me another expensive lesson on the constraints provided on the measures of time allotted to each one of us. Instead, therefore, I will stop here.
I hope we shall encounter each other again on a different occasion, though it seems my blogging is not going to increase in frequency. In terms of personal value, I have more profitable things to write (and certainly to do! 🙂 ).