Faith in Science

The Orrery by Joseph Wright of Derby. 'Few of us know how to prove that the Earth orbits the Sun.' Photograph: The Gallery Collection/Corbis

The Orrery by Joseph Wright of Derby. 'Few of us know how to prove that the Earth orbits the Sun.' Photograph: The Gallery Collection/Corbis

Should we have faith in Science? A recent article in the Guardian by a friend of mine (Alom Shaha) suggests that ‘faith’ in science is really not appropriate.

Science has become the flavour of the month. Nowadays even comedians want to brag about their unfinished science PhDs. But is having people ‘feel’ that science is cool enough? Such a change in attitudes, though not unwelcome in itself, simply represents a shift in fashion. Alom quotes me in his article where he claims that Science is humanity’s greatest cultural achievement, and he and I both believe that as a culture we should be collectively and individually proud of Science. More importantly, Alom argues we should be collectively and individually more knowledgeable about it. In short, in addition to science ‘entertainment’ designed to make people ‘feel nice about science’, there should be an explicit media accent on science education I agree profoundly: and indeed that is the point of the Protons for Breakfast course. It’s not propaganda, it’s empowerment.

The latest instance science-flavoured stories in the media was the front page story in the Times last Thursday: “Hawking: God did not create Universe“. There is not time or space in this blog to address the issue of God: that is a big question But this newspaper story? I do have a little space and time for that: just enough to say that this is utter nonsense. Leaving aside any special knowledge Stephen Hawking might have on the subject of God, we come to the question of the origin of the Universe. Amazingly humanity has made progress on this question. Our progress has been driven through observational astronomy rather than cosmological speculation. The discovery and understanding of the microwave background radiation, for example, puts the idea of an explosion some 13 billion years ago on a sound footing. Estimates of the ratio of hydrogen to helium in the universe, tie up with our understanding of the nuclear process which must have taken place in the first moments of this explosion. We should be collectively proud of these achievements. But we should be collectively aware that many aspects of the explosion are not understood at all, most notably the supposed period of faster-than-light growth in which the Universe increased in size by a factor 10^78 i.e. a factor:

1000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000

for no reason that we understand. We can give names to the phenomena (inflation – which I think is rather understated given the colossal nature of the expansion!)  and explain that if this inflation did not occur then the universe would be observably different (the microwave background radiation would not be so uniform in different direction in the sky). We can even hypothesise about what might have caused it (an inflaton field). But in the end, we just don’t know. And we have to face the fact that we may never know. Or that there is some other aspect of this about which we are not aware.

The Hawking explanation for the origin of the Universe (and I use the word ‘explanation’ very cautiously) is that in fact there is not just one Universe which we don’t fully understand, there are apparently a stupendously large number of universes similar to ours, all unobservable from our own home universe. Forgive me, but someone who advocates that this is an ‘explanation’ of anything deserves sympathy rather than praise. The idea that this is on the front of a national newspaper should be a source of embarrassment for scientists.

Lev Landau, one of the great physicists of the twentieth century stated that ‘”Cosmologists are often in error but seldom in doubt.” I would go further. I think Cosmologists must be always in error, because I suspect there will always be things we don’t understand. But ultimately our understanding of the universe should not be a matter of faith, or fashion, and Stephen Hawking’s opinion on the matter is just irrelevant.

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