Putting Our Faith in Science

Meka subscribes to the Scientific American Book of the Month Club. This month, the selection was a textbook on subatomic physics. She is studying chemistry in college and I took quite a few science courses in school. We both are avid watchers of the Discovery Channel and “Nova”. I assumed that would provide us with a base understanding and perhaps the book might fill in some of the gaps. We cracked the book open and tried to read the first chapter. It was full of equations; Meka at least knew the names of the Greek letters. The text appeared to be in English, but words order in proper not. It occurred to me that my primary introduction to physics was classical physics, the stuff Kepler described and Newton explained in the 1700’s. Meka has taken it a step farther in her studies. She has learned the basics of electromagnetism, first gleaned in Victorian times by James Clerk Maxwell.

The primary problem in my understanding was its primary language is mathematics. I don’t speak Math, I speak English. Newton invented calculus and used it to describe orbital mechanics. It took generations to translate equations into metaphorical examples that most people could understand and accept, even when their “common sense” view of the world was misleading. The same thing happened with Einstein. His primary genius was to describe extreme places in our universe mathematically. Again, it required metaphor to explain it to lay people in a convincing enough way that the concepts could be understood and accepted even though what they were describing was so far out of human experience as to be science fiction.

Subatomic physics is still a work in progress. I’ve toured Fermilab and seen the long green hill that slowly curves round the grounds, hiding the Tevatron where atoms are smashed into each other so scientists can examine the pieces. Because we’re at the edge of understanding, the metaphors required to understand these new discoveries haven’t been written yet. Instead we have awkward and halting explanations: vibrating strings that shrivel up into almost nothingness… almost. Particles that are clearly defined by equations are rather muddled in English. Scientists talk about spin, but not spin as a normal person would understand the word. Properties include color, but not real color (the particles are much too small to be viewed in normal light). Particles have levels of strangeness… I don’t doubt it, but I don’t think that’s what the scientists meant.

I don’t have a deep enough background in science and math to understand subatomic theory except in approximations. Still, I assume that – somehow – it all must work. I think this is a pretty common view of the world, it’s not all that controversial. However, I can think of another theory is very controversial: evolution. It has been around long enough that people are comfortable with the metaphorical examples of how it works (or claims to work, depending on your point of view). But the theory is actually evolving itself. Today’s theory – while still called “evolution” – is not the proposal that Charles Darwin came up with 150 years ago. Scientists in many different specialties have lent their expertise to provide parts of a greater explanation: geology, paleontology, biology, even astronomy. The study of genetics combined with statistics along with the power of computers have allowed scientists to come up with various evolutionary models. This is a work in progress though and metaphor hasn’t had time to catch up. Until this happens, laymen who haven’t devoted their lives to study have to take the idea that evolution works based on faith: faith in the scientific method, faith that an answer is knowable, faith that we’re on the right track.


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