Posted by Alex Alexander • August 02, 2015
When I was a student, I was taught the simple algorithm of the scientific method. First, you make an observation–simply observe some kind of phenomenon. Or you conduct an experiment. Then, you observe the phenomenon again or repeat the experiment. In so doing you witness a pattern. You try to record it in the strictest mathematical sense, using formulas. Then you hand everything over to the theoreticians. They attempt to build a model and describe it mathematically. When the mathematical model is ready, it can predict the system’s behavior in its various states. At that point, the experimenters re-enter the state and test the model for durability.
A brilliant example of this approach was the discovery of W and Z bosons, and, very recently, the Higgs boson. Theoretical scientists like Glashow, Weinberg, Salam and Higgs were able to construct one of the most sophisticated mathematical models in history; it was this model that shed light on the existence of new particles that the experimenters then pounced on–voraciously and with huge budgets. And Nobel Prizes were their rewards.
A great number (if not the majority) of discoveries were random, after a scientist (or another observer, not necessarily a scientist) witnessed some new phenomenon that everybody else then scrambled to try and explain.
But is this algorithm always reliable?
Far from it. Oftentimes humanity feels a little too smug about its own scientific achievements.
There is a famous story about the great phycisist Max Planck. As he was starting his university studies, he took his father’s advice and sought out Professor Philipp von Jolly, telling him that he wanted to study theoretical physics. The professor began convincing the student against it, claiming that the science has run itself dry, with only a few minor problems left to resolve. This was at the end of the XIX century.
Now tell me, please: what are we to do about the poltergeist? The phenomenon is certainly pesky in that it cannot be experimented upon, cannot be replicated, cannot be asked to present itself when you roll up with all your eyewitnesses and equipment.
At the same time, it cannot be explained by anything from contemporary science. What, then, is humanity’s response? Negation, naturally. It makes everything super simple. Easier to dismiss it as falsehood or cheap PR tricks.
And maybe it is. But what if it’s actually true? If so, what are the chances witnesses of these phenomena can get through to the scientists?
Not very high, I’m afraid.
However, we already know enough to make some general conclusions. Stay tuned for more on that in upcoming blog posts.