Major Scientific Revolutions Are Still Possible
Beware the myth of progress. There’s more scientists don’t know than what they know.
Once in awhile, a headline will suggest that a new finding could “challenge our understanding of” physics, biology, or some other field of science. Sometimes these things are brushed off or simply incorporated into the consensus web of belief. Enough anomalies, though, can begin a scientific revolution. Here are a few rumblings in the science news with potential to explode.
Study questions dates for cataclysms on early moon, Earth (University of Wisconsin-Madison): Planetary scientists speak matter-of-factly about two events: the collision that formed the moon from the primitive earth, and the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB). “Both events are widely accepted, but unproven,” this article cautions. The dates of the alleged events were divined from zircons in shocked minerals from Apollo lunar rocks. Aaron Cavoisie is now challenging the methods used to infer dates from those zircons. If the LHB falls, then inferences about the appearance of life on Earth are also thrown into doubt. Despite its support by the consensus, the LHB is “poorly understood,” the article says. Also, “The question of what resets the zircon clock has always been very complicated.”
Ground-breaking research could challenge underlying principles of physics (Science Daily): Ever heard of kaons? “An international team of physicists has published ground-breaking research on the decay of subatomic particles called kaons — which could change how scientists understand the formation of the universe.” At issue is the antimatter problem. So far, particles and their antiparticles look identical except for charge (8/13/15). “Only with matter-antimatter asymmetry can they hope to explain why the universe, which was created with equal parts of matter and antimatter, is filled mostly with matter today.” This remains a major anomaly in big bang theory. Something in consensus belief has to give.
Dark matter might cause fundamental constants to change over time (PhysOrg): Who knows the consequences of varying constants? The effects on cosmology could be huge. Australian scientists are just tinkering with theoretical ideas at this point about dark matter—which remains unknown—but think about the implications.
The fundamental constants of nature—such as the speed of light, Planck’s constant, and Newton’s gravitational constant—are thought to be constant in time, as their name suggests. But scientists have questioned this assumption as far back as 1937, when Paul Dirac hypothesized that Newton’s gravitational constant might decrease over time.
Now in a new paper published in Physical Review Letters, Yevgeny V. Stadnik and Victor V. Flambaum at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, have theoretically shown that dark matter can cause the fundamental constants of nature to slowly evolve as well as oscillate due to oscillations in the dark matter field. This idea requires that the weakly interacting dark matter particles be able to interact a small amount with standard model particles, which the scientists show is possible.
But wouldn’t varying constants change the habitability of the Earth? The authors address that:
“The fundamental constants are ‘fine-tuned’ to be consistent with the existence of life in the Universe,” Stadnik told Phys.org. “If the physical constants were even slightly different, life could not have appeared. The discovery of varying fundamental ‘constants’ may help shed important light on how the physical constants came to have their life-sustaining values today. We simply appeared in an area of the Universe where they are consistent with our existence.“
It could be, they seem to be saying, that we are living at a special time or location in the universe. The arguments, speculative as they are, show that serious scientists consider these outlandish ideas as possibilities, implying that there is much about the nature of physical reality we may be taking for granted without warrant.
The universe as we know it (PhysOrg): Read this article if you want to glimpse the depth of ignorance scientists still have about basic physics—and physics is what is often considered the most solid of sciences. A USC physicist gives reasons for and against string theory, and talks about extra dimensions, dark matter, and subatomic particles. 95% of reality is unknown to science, he repeats. Maybe the headline should read, “The universe as we don’t know it.”
So when you read hyper-confident articles like this one in PhysOrg, “Researchers to study thermonuclear reaction rates to determine how much of certain elements exploding stars can produce,” look under the hood.
Apart from hydrogen, as many have heard from the Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson Cosmos series, every ingredient in the human body is made from elements forged by stars.
The calcium in our bones, the oxygen we breathe, the iron in our blood – all those are forged in the element factories of stars. Even the carbon in our apple pie.
In the fine print below these guru-like pronouncements, we find that physicists really don’t know that much about nucleosynthesis. “It sounds pretty simple, but it is a very intricate process. And there are still many uncertainties.”
Never take a scientist’s bluster seriously. Always probe for the evidence. To see why this is necessary, just consider the bluster of science around the year 1900. Some were claiming they had everything figured out so well, that all science needed to to was increase the certainty by a few more decimal places. But almost everything they believed was wrong! Their views on the atom, genetics, inheritance, geology, the planets, the stars, and the universe have changed drastically. The year 1900 was before relativity, quantum mechanics, plate tectonics, genomics, space travel, atomic radiation, redshifts and electron microscopes. Most of them thought the universe was the Milky Way. How wrong they were! We have no reason to doubr that 100 years from now, if the Earth survives, future scientists will look back at how wrong we were in 2015.
The reliability of science rests not in consensus, but in its correspondence with reality. Better a maverick who is right than a million who are wrong and funded by millions of dollars. Think about this when the consensus blusters about global warming, evolution, and the big bang.