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An afternoon with Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer

Former NASA man talks education, astronomy, and lots and lots of photons

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Post-modernism and science

EL REG: Then there's the post-modernism view: in the humanities there are any number of efforts to try and “de-right” science. How damaging is that in terms of trying to get understanding? How damaging is the attitude that science is just point of view.

PLAIT: That's actually maddening. Look: you can interpret life through poetry, you can interpret life through art. These are all viewpoints, interesting, and a diversity of views that you can legitimately support this way.

I'm a huge classical music guy, so I can listen to a piece and understand what the composer was trying to say, or how it affects me, or whatever.

But – just because there are subjective interpretations of reality does not mean there is not an objective version of reality. In fact, we are immersed in reality.

No matter who you are, no matter how you try to deconstruct science: if I hold a rock over your foot and let go of it, one million times out of one million, it's going to fall on your foot!

EL REG: “I refute it thus”

PLAIT: QED. Not only is that rock going to fall, given some very simple assumptions, I can tell you how long it will take to hit your foot, how quickly it will be moving when it hits your foot, and all sorts of things.

You can predict it, it will always come out that way, and that is essentially the simplest proof that there is objective reality. No matter how you try to interpret that through poetry – the numbers win.

EL REG: Chopin is physics …

PLAIT: There's a difference between between post-modernism, and reductionism. Which is different.

You can take the piece of music, run it through the Fourier transform and get all the waveforms. But that isn't the same as listening to the music. It's like trying to look at the score of a piece of music, and try to feel it. Unless you're a conductor or something … I certainly can't. I can try to describe to you Stravinsky's Firebird. But you still have to experience it.

That's okay: science and math is one part of the experience that you have, but the waveform is the same for everybody – that's the science. Interpretation is experience and nurture, and all of that,

EL REG: Similar to looking at Saturn through a telescope.

PLAIT: There's poetry and art in science. You'd be mad to deny that. But it's not all there is. People who think of science as a compendium of facts, but it's more than that. It's a method. But it's not just that, it's more than the method, the code. There is inspiration, and there is induction, and there is a beauty in science.

If you have two things that describe the same thing, the one that's simpler, the simpler proof, usually is correct – Occam's Razor. Not always, but usually. There's a beauty in that. To say that scientists lack imagination, or this is just another interpretation of things, is to me incorrect at its most fundamental level.

Another reason post-modernism is wrong is that because science has predictive power. It's not just some random thing – I can't predict if you're going to like a poem, but if there's an objective reality, it should be predictable, and it is. There are rules that the universe obeys.

It's amazing at all that we can figure out what they are – but you can figure them out by observing the universe. Sometimes people say “science is just another religion based on principles you can't prove”. But in fact, the only assumption that science makes is that there are rules that the universe obeys, and by observing them, you can figure them out. And it turns out that's true.

It's like watching a roulette wheel – you can figure out the game by watching it. We watch planets around the sun, watch microbes divide: you can tease out the underlying mechanisms of the universe this way.

Some of them may be random. A lot of this quantum stuff is random – but the fact that it's random is a rule, like flipping a coin a million times. Even in randomness there is order on a larger scale.

This is why science is absolutely our best way of understanding the universe.

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