Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Science at work - and God! (paca)

As an editorial assistant of an academic journal, I definitely get to see my fair share of "who really gives a damn" research - research that seems to have no point other than the fact that all us "researchers" are required to publish to keep our jobs. Undoubtedly, some of it truly isn't very important and will never be of much use to anybody. But the thing about science is that you frequently don't know which research is important or not until much later, if ever. So a linguist might document a stress system of a Pacific island language spoken by 150 people 1200 miles from nowhere. You look at the title, "Stress adjustments in the Tanawalam dialect of Kunu" and yawn. Someone got a grant for that? But someone else takes this bit of data and realizes its implications for how stress works in language, which then makes them rethink how stress could possibly be processed by the brain, which then makes them reanalyze the functional mappings of neural substrates of speech, and suddenly they are re-thinking how humans integrate multiple sensory input into conscious analysis, i.e., they are learning something basic about how humans think - all because some other linguist wrote up 20 pages on this obscure dialect of Kunu in 1968.

I was thinking about this because of this recent article from Space.com It's an article about whether or not famed physical constants are actually constant. It's an unevenly written article in that it starts off talking about atomic superglue in order to be accessible to a general audience and then later just tosses out words like strong force and general relativity. So the question about contants involves questions like: was the speed of light always the same? Apparently much of the evidence that the constants might have had different values comes from analysis of quasar spectra. If I was to just look at an article about quasar spectra, I would think, "I'm sure it's a bit interesting to an astronomer." At best. But by looking at this isolated data about objects billions of light years away, scientists are having to think very hard about the nature of the universe as a whole. For me, the most interesting statement in the article is from a scientist saying something to the effect of "we know what many of the constants currently are, but we don't know why they are as they are." To me, that is an exceedingly interesting question. The only answer we've had for a long time is God. And my understanding is that some Intelligent Design arguments are based on this - if any constant had differred by a millionth the whole universe would collapse, so something must have made the constants as they are.

I think it is very cool that some measurements of quasar spectra can make you think about God.

Here's one more last thought to stir controversy. In mathematics for a long time people were puzzled very much by the idea of the square root of -1 (negative one, minus one). Every number, even zero has a square root except for (-1). Of course, every negative number would have this problem, since a negative number times itself is positive, but negative numbers are just positive numbers multiplied by -1. Minus one is the problem. Eventually, this quandry was "solved" by just giving the square root of minus 1 a name: i.

And that's it. "i" just is the square root of -1, though we still have no idea what "i" is. But now it has a name and mathematicians could move on. Humans seem to operate like this. We don't undersand something, but then we give it a name and, voila - now we understand it and can work with it. There are a lot of diseases like this. SIDs (Sudden Infant Death) syndrome is pretty much just a name, but with a name doctors seem to be able to make progress on identifying symptoms, which might one day lead to genuine understanding of what is going on.

The controversial bit: Is God the religious version of "i'?

We don't know where anything came from, so we will give it a name. It came from God. We don't know how God did it or what God is like, but at least we have a name. God. That seeems to help.

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