When it comes to science, never say never

Science knocks down its own boundaries.

In late July, an article was published online in the journal Nature that suggests it may be possible to circumvent Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  Big deal, right?  Well, yes it is, actually, for two reasons: (1) it may be one of the most significant advances in science in the last 50 years, and (2) it underscores the difference between science, the sciences, and scientists.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle tells us that there are limits on the precision by which we can know certain properties of objects.  At the meso-level of everyday experience, its effects are negligible, but not so at the subatomic level.  For instance, we cannot know the momentum of an electron and its position in space to arbitrarily high precision.  This is because any way we have to measure one of the two properties will change the other just as we measure the one.  This has been a significant thorn in the side of scientists who want to understand the nature of the matter and, therefore, the universe.

Over time, the Uncertainty Principle because an inviolate law: it went from “we don’t know” to “we can never know.”  I’ll come back to this later.

Enter quantum entanglement, which is a phenomenon whereby separated objects can share absolutely identical properties simultaneously.  The recently published work suggests that, if one can entangle two elementary particles sufficiently, then the two particles would appear to be absolutely identical to each other in every way, and we can then measure, say, the momentum of one and the position of the other.  But since they’re indistinguishable, we’d have the momentum and position of one of the particles – which violates the Uncertainty Principle.

If this pans out, and if sufficiently entangled particles can be created, then it would be a major coup for physics. We’d be able to acertain just how well our current Standard Model of particle physics fits real data. And we’ll probably find a dozen or so heretofore unknown relationships and phenomena. Remember, particle physics lays the foundation of the structure of matter that composes the entire universe, including our bodies. We might even gain a better understanding of how gravity arises from matter – a phenomenon that we still only understand in the vaguest terms.

There’s something even more interesting, though, about this possible discovery: the differences between how science works, how scientists react, and how the public understand it all.

For now, scientists will remain skeptical of the research, not because it’s hard to believe that a principle as successful as Heisenberg’s could be overturned with such relative ease, but just because it hasn’t been sufficiently demonstrated, replicated, and validated in a variety of ways. Assuming this happens – and this is the good part – scientists will undoubtedly accept the new findings.

It won’t happen right away, of course. And some scientists will fight rather hard to argue against the new findings. It might even take a generation or two for them to become “accepted.”  (Look at how long it took quantum mechanics to be accepted!)  But that’s the way science works: scientists may err, but over time, science will self-correct, and the sciences will grow to everyone’s eventual benefit.  Assuming, of course, it’s not all co-opted by politics, economics, or any other external force.

This brings me to my main point: too many people conflate three distinct concepts: science, the sciences, and scientists.

Science is much simpler than most people think.  Whenever you learn by trial and error, your really doing a (admittedly naive) form of science.  The wikipedia entry for science gives us a pretty good explanation. Science is a way of reliably predicting how parts of the universe will behave, through understanding how the universe works.  If it weren’t for science’s ability to make accurate predictions, we’d all still be living in caves and dying in our 30’s.  Science is painstaking, meticulous, and entirely devoid of notions of competition, self-aggrandizement, ego, corruption, etc.  Science is an ideal; something to aim for with enthusiasm and to miss without despair.

I could write a lot more about “science”, but that’s not the point here.  Let’s just say that, in unequivocal terms, science works.

The sciences are not the same thing as science. The sciences are the collective bodies of knowledge of each scientific discipline.  This includes not only the results of scientific activities (the so-called “domain knowledge”) but also the methodological knowledge of how to go about doing science in each discipline. The bodies of knowledge that are the sciences is incomplete and imperfect, but that doesn’t make them wrong.  Einstein didn’t disprove Newton’s Laws; he developed more general laws that account for phenomena Newton didn’t know about.  Sometimes, humans make mistakes interpreting scientific data, but eventually, as the sciences grow and more information becomes available, the errors are corrected, as often as not by the scientists who made the original mistake.

So here’s how to visualize the sciences. Picture a big dark room.  You’re in the middle of it, with a small candle.  You have some things handy, like a letter opener.  You use the letter opener for all kinds of things, including pulling staples off bound sets of papers.  You understand the things that you can see, and you can use them to get things done.  But eventually, you become curious about the rest of the room, about the things you can’t see.  So you start to explore.  And you find strange things that you don’t understand.  Like a small metal device rather like a mouth with two pairs of rather dangerous looking fangs.  You study it, and you understand how it works, but not what it’s for.  And then, one day while pulling staples off bound papers, you think: I could use a wedge that could slide under the staple and pry it loose.  And then you think of the odd device – a de-stapler – and try it.

And at that moment, your world gets a bit bigger.  The de-stapler now fits into your understanding of the the room and its contents.  The de-stapler didn’t change; you did.

The sciences are like that.  There’s a core area of very well understood phenomena, the sort of things that we deal with on a daily basis.  Then there’s a large area of totally unknown phenomena.  And in between the two is a gray area, where you think you know things, but you’re not quite sure.  Sometimes your thinking about the things in the gray area is wrong, but you correct your mistakes, and slowly you can learn more and more, and your understanding gets broader and deeper, but always remains rooted in the things that are at the core.

The concept of scientist is yet a third, different thing.  Science is carried out, imperfectly, by scientists, to expand the sciences.  Scientists are imperfect, because they are, after all, human.  But the methods of science give them the tools to, in the long run, correct their own errors.  This doesn’t stop individual scientists from messing up, sometimes in rather spectacular ways. But these are the errors of single individuals, not those of the rich and complex community in which they participate (the sciences), nor of the system they use to get things done (science).

This notion of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle being inviolate is a good case.  Even the word, principle, is a hint to its status as something less than a law of nature.  A principle is defined in various dictionaries as a law or rule or assumption.  That is, a principle is the best we’ve got, but it’s not necessarily the right thing. Because the Uncertainty Principle had remained inviolate for so long, scientists (humans) began to relax their guard and began to think of it more as a law than a principle.  The media (more humans) didn’t help either, with their oversimplifications.  The notion of the Uncertainty Principle as law has become so ingrained that it’s even reached the level of entertainment: consider for example the Heisenberg Compensator in Star Trek.

Now, if this new research is properly validated, we will have at least one way around the Principle.  We haven’t violated it, but we will have found something else that lets us effectively work as if it didn’t matter. Our understanding will expand as a result.  This is the real thrill of science: finding out something new that doesn’t negate what you already knew, but gives you some sort of control over it.

What really burns my toast is when people say that science isn’t reliable and point to the actions of scientists as proof.  This is just plain wrong, like saying 2 + 2 = 3.  It’s like blaming a car for hitting a pedestrian rather than blaming the car’s drunk driver.

Even worse, people seem to think it’s okay to condemn science because of the actions of scientists, yet expect scientists to be as perfect as one expects science to be.  This is just nuts, because it’s entirely inconsistent.  It’s like saying:

This sentence is false.

It just can’t be.  Yet it seems more and more people think in this twisted, irrational way.

One more thing: people seem to think that science is hard.  It isn’t.  The sciences are hard.  But science is easy.  We do it every day.  Every time you learn from a mistake, you’re essentially doing science.  Every time you “tweak” something then sit back and watch how it changes, and let those changes guide your next tweak, you’re doing science.  Every time you use your experience to guide your decision making, you’re doing science.

Admittedly, it’s usually not very good science, because it isn’t sufficiently detailed, or meticulous, or replicated for verification – not, at least, compared to how “real science” is done.  But it’s still science at its heart.

As a people we need to understand science better – not the scientific facts of things and all the fancy math that scientists use in the sciences – but the underlying philosophy, the approach, the framework.  Doing that will help us think through every single problem and every single situation in a better, more reliable and ultimately, more fulfilling way.

This has a lot to do with designing, because designing is one element in conducting science.  You can think of a design as a hypothesis: we hypothesize that product X will result in certain effects AB and C. Understanding how science works can very substantively help designers understand what problems they need to design solutions for, how to figure out if the desired effects were achieved, and how to tweak their designs be better in the future.

And perhaps we’ll stop thinking that there’s ever a perfect solution that we can know, because as we’ve seen with this new research on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, a key feature of science is “never say never.”


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