The Great Mystery

The first-ever “photo” of a black hole. It’s an achievement once thought impossible, given that black holes exert such monstrous gravity that they swallow light itself. 

Over the last century, science has shown that our universe is a far stranger place than our everyday experience would suggest. Space itself is curved and warped by mass. Time slows down on an object the faster it travels. Electrons act both as particles and waves. “Entangled’’ particles seem to instantly know and react to what happens to their partner across vast distances. At the quantum level, there is no empty space: Particles constantly pop in and out of existence, creating an ephemeral quantum “foam.” At the other end of the scale, there are least 2 trillion galaxies in the universe, each containing billions of stars and probably more than a few planets where intelligent life has evolved and is puzzling over the same questions as we are. The more we discover, the more it becomes clear that our certainties, whatever they may be, are built on illusions. We live in a great mystery.  

William Falk writing in The Week Magazine 

Treat Failure like a Scientist

When a scientist runs an experiment, there are all sorts of results that could happen. Some results are positive and some are negative, but all of them are data points. Each result is a piece of data that can ultimately lead to an answer.

And that’s exactly how a scientist treats failure: as another data point.

This is much different than how society often talks about failure. For most of us, failure feels like an indication of who we are as a person.

Failing a test means you’re not smart enough. Failing to get fit means you’re undesirable. Failing in business means you don’t have what it takes. Failing at art means you’re not creative. And so on.

But for the scientist, a negative result is not an indication that they are a bad scientist. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Proving a hypothesis wrong is often just as useful as proving it right because you learned something along the way.

Your failures are simply data points that can help lead you to the right answer.

James Clear 

Denialism and Science

Denialism, and related phenomena, are often portrayed as a “war on science”. This is an understandable but profound misunderstanding. Certainly, denialism and other forms of pseudo-scholarship do not follow mainstream scientific methodologies. Denialism does indeed represent a perversion of the scholarly method, and the science it produces rests on profoundly erroneous assumptions, but denialism does all this in the name of science and scholarship. Denialism aims to replace one kind of science with another – it does not aim to replace science itself. In fact, denialism constitutes a tribute to the prestige of science and scholarship in the modern world. Denialists are desperate for the public validation that science affords.

While denialism has sometimes been seen as part of a post-modern assault on truth, the denialist is just as invested in notions of scientific objectivity as the most unreconstructed positivist. Even those who are genuinely committed to alternatives to western rationality and science can wield denialist rhetoric that apes precisely the kind of scientism they despise. Anti-vaxxers, for example, sometimes seem to want to have their cake and eat it: to have their critique of western medicine validated by western medicine.

The rhetoric of denialism and its critics can resemble each other in a kind of war to the death over who gets to wear the mantle of science. The term “junk science” has been applied to climate change denialism, as well as in defence of it. Mainstream science can also be dogmatic and blind to its own limitations. If the accusation that global warming is an example of politicised ideology masked as science is met with indignant assertions of the absolute objectivity of “real” science, there is a risk of blinding oneself to uncomfortable questions regarding the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which the idea of pure truth, untrammelled by human interests, is elusive. Human interests can rarely if ever be separated from the ways we observe the world.  

I do not believe that, if only one could find the key to “make them understand”, denialists would think just like me. If denialists were to stop denying, we cannot assume that we would then have a shared moral foundation on which we could make progress as a species.

Keith Kahn-Harris, Denial: The Unspeakable Truth  

The day pain died

The date of the first operation under anesthetic, Oct. 16, 1846, ranks among the most iconic in the history of medicine.

Before 1846, the vast majority of religious and medical opinion held that pain was inseparable from sensation in general, and thus from life itself. Though the idea of pain as necessary may seem primitive and brutal to us today, it lingers in certain corners of healthcare, such as obstetrics and childbirth, where epidurals and caesarean sections still carry the taint of moral opprobrium. In the early 19th century, doctors interested in the pain-relieving properties of ether and nitrous oxide were characterized as cranks and profiteers. The case against them was not merely practical, but moral: They were seen as seeking to exploit their patients' base and cowardly instincts. Furthermore, by whipping up the fear of operations, they were frightening others away from surgery and damaging public health.

The "eureka moment" of anesthesia, like the seemingly sudden arrival of many new technologies, was not so much a moment of discovery as a moment of recognition: a tipping point when society decided that old attitudes needed to be overthrown. It was a social revolution as much as a medical one.

Mike Jay, The Atmosphere of Heaven

It was so much fun!

When Albert A. Michelson, the first person in the United States to win a Nobel prize in science, was asked at the end of his life why he had devoted so much of his time to measuring the velocity of light, he is said to have replied, “It was so much fun.’ And lest we forget, Einstein wrote his most influential papers while working as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office. These and the many other great scientists one could easily mention were not handicapped in their thinking because they were not “professionals” in their field, recognized figures with sources of legitimate support. They simply did what they enjoyed doing.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Flow