Feeds

An afternoon with Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer

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

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

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.

Security for virtualized datacentres

More from The Register

next story
MEN: For pity's sake SLEEP with LOTS of WOMEN - and avoid Prostate Cancer
And, um, don't sleep with other men. If that's what worries you
Voyager 1 now EIGHTEEN LIGHT HOURS from home
Almost 20 BEEELION kilometres from Sol
Jim Beam me up, Scotty! WHISKY from SPAAACE returns to Earth
They're insured for $1m, before you thirsty folks make plans
ROGUE SAIL BOAT blocks SPACE STATION PODULE blastoff
Er, we think our ISS launch beats your fishing expedition
Comet Siding Spring revealed as flying molehill
Hiding from this space pimple isn't going to do humanity's reputation any good
BAE points electromagnetic projectile at US Army
Railguns for 'Future fighting vehicle'
OK Google, do I have CANCER?
Company talks up pill that would spot developing tumors
LONG ARM of the SAUR: Brachially gifted dino bone conundrum solved
Deinocheirus mirificus was a bit of a knuckle dragger
prev story

Whitepapers

Why cloud backup?
Combining the latest advancements in disk-based backup with secure, integrated, cloud technologies offer organizations fast and assured recovery of their critical enterprise data.
Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
New hybrid storage solutions
Tackling data challenges through emerging hybrid storage solutions that enable optimum database performance whilst managing costs and increasingly large data stores.
Getting ahead of the compliance curve
Learn about new services that make it easy to discover and manage certificates across the enterprise and how to get ahead of the compliance curve.