Why do we do science?

What is the point of science? In practice, most scientists use their knowledge to try to make something, or solve some sort of problem, or at least help someone else do that. (Like most occupations, most junior ones turn up to work and work on what they are told to work on.) But, you might say, surely, deep down, they are seekers of the truth? Unfortunately, I rather fancy this is not the case. The problem was first noted by Thomas Kuhn, in his book, “The structure of scientific revolutions”. In Kuhn’s view, scientific results are almost always interpreted in terms of the current paradigm, i.e. while the data are reproduced properly, they are interpreted in terms of current thinking, even if that does not fit very well. No other theory gets a look-in. If a result does not conform to the standard theory, the researcher does not question the standard theory. The first effort is to find some way of accommodating it, and if that does not work, it may be listed as a question for further work, in other words the researcher tries to persuade someone else to find a way of fitting it to the standard paradigm rather than taking the effort to find an alternative theory.

According to Kuhn, most science is carried out as “normal science”, wherein researchers create puzzles that should be solved by the standard paradigm, in other words, experiments are set up not to try to find the truth, but rather to confirm what everyone believes to be true. This is not entirely unreasonable. If we stop and think for a moment, an awful lot of such research is carried out by PhD students, or post-doctoral fellows. The lead researcher has submitted his idea as a request for funding, and this is overseen by a panel. If you submit something that would not get anywhere within the current paradigm, you will not get funding because the panel will usually consider this to be a waste of time. On top of that, if you are going to include a PhD student in this work, that student needs a thesis at the end of his work, and that student will not thank the supervisor for coming up with something that does not produce results that can be written up. In other words, the projects are chosen such that the lead researcher has a very good idea as to what will be found, and it will be chosen so that it is unlikely to lead to too great an intellectual challenge. An example of a good project might to make a new chemical compound that might be a useful drug. The project might involve new synthetic work, there will be problems in choosing a route, but the project will not founder on some conceptual problem.

Natually, the standard paradigm clearly must have much going for it to get adopted in the first place. It cannot be just anything, and there will be a lot of truth in it, nevertheless as I mentioned in my first ebook, part 1 of “Elements of Theory”, any moderate subset of data frequently has at least two theories that would explain the data, and when the paradigm is chosen, the subset is moderate. If all that follows it to investigate very similar problems, then a mistake can last. The classic mistake was Claudius Ptolemy’s cosmological theory, which was the “truth” for over 1600 years, even though it was wrong and, as we now recognize, with no physical basis. If you wish to find the truth, you might follow Popper and try to design experiments that would falsify such a theory, but PhD theses cannot be based like that as it is too risky that the student will find nothing and fail to get his degree through no fault of his.

What brought these thoughts on was a recent article in the journal Icarus. The subject was questioning how the Moon was formed. The standard theory of planetary formation goes like this. After the star forms, the accretion disk that remains settles the dust on the central plane, and this gradually congeals into larger bodies, which further join together when they collide, and so on, until you get planetesimals (objects about the size of asteroids) then, apart from the asteroids, eventually embryos (objects about the size of Mars) which gravitationally interact and form very eccentric orbits, and then collide to form planets (except for Mars, which is a remaining embryo). All such collisions once planetesimals form are random, and the underpinning material could have come from a very large region, thus Earth was made from embryos formed from material beyond Mars and Venus. The Moon was formed from the splatter arising from a near glancing collision of a Mars-sized body called Theia with Earth.

If you carefully measure the isotope ratios of samples of meteorites, what you find is that all from the same origin have the same isotope ratios, but those from different parts of the solar system have different ratios. As an example, oxygen has three stable isotopes of atomic weights 16, 17 and 18. We have carbonaceous chondrites from the outer asteroid belt, a number of samples from Vesta, some from Mars, and of course unlimited supplies from here. The isotope ratios of these samples are all the same from one source, but different between sources. We also have a good number of samples from the Moon, thanks to the Apollo program. Now, the unusual fact is, the Moon is made of material that is essentially identical to our rocks, at least in terms of isotope ratios.

This Icarus paper carried out simulations of planetary formation employing the standard theory, and showed that since the Moon is largely Theia, the chances of the Moon and Earth having the same ratio of even oxygen isotopes is less than 5%. So, what conclusion do the authors draw? The obvious one is that the Moon did not form that way; a more subtle one is that planets did not form by the random collision of growing rocky bodies. However, they drew neither. Instead, they really refused to draw a conclusion.

I should add that I have in interest in this debate, as my mechanism outlined in Planetary Formation and Biogenesis has the planets grow from relatively narrow zones, although the disk material is always heading towards the star to provide new feed. The Moon grows at the same distance as Earth (at a Lagrange point) from the star and hence has the same composition. The concept that the Moon formed at either L4 or L5 was originally proposed by Belbruno and Gott in 2005 (Astron. J. 129: 1724–1745) and I regard it as almost dishonest not to have mentioned their work, which predicts their result provided the bodies form from local material. Unfortunately, the citing of scientific work that contradicts the standard theory is not exactly frequent, and in my view, does science no service. The real problem is, how common is this rejection of that which is currently uncomfortable?

You may say, who cares? It may very well be that how the Moon formed is totally irrelevant to modern society. My point is, society is becoming extremely dependent on science, and if science starts to become disinterested in seeking the truth, then eventually the mistakes may become very significant. Of course mistakes will be made. That happens in any human endeavor. But, do we want to restrict them to unavoidable accidents, or are we prepared to put up with avoidable errors?

Science in fiction II

In my previous post, I tried to show that science is a way of thinking, but that left the main issue of the title, “Science in fiction” more or less free of comment. On television, at least, there has been a glut of programs showing forensic science, with various level of realism, but the general rules of cause and effect are generally followed, and given that most of the audience would know nothing of forensic science before these programs started, and given their apparent popularity, I think this shows that if properly done, there is no reason to suspect that readers would be put off by science. The important point of such forensic science programs is that there is usually someone present, like the policeman, who knows nothing about it, and hence can be told what is going to happen. I think the concept of “No surprises!” is important. If the reader is told in advance what is going to happen, and why, the reader accepts it, provided the explanations are reasonably clear.

However, you cannot do that with a surprising discovery, and sometimes the story needs just that to drive the plot along. Thus in my novel Red Gold, which was about fraud during the colonization of Mars, I needed a very big surprise of considerable economic significance to expose the fraud. Up until the critical point, it was believed that colonization of Mars might be very difficult because the soil, or more specifically, the regolith, is rather nitrogen deficient. At the same time, the atmosphere of Mars has very little nitrogen in it. These are standard facts and are correct, as far as we have been able to find out. Rather remarkably, we have found very few nitrates, which is something of a surprise since we have found perchlorates, and it would be something of a surprise if chloride in the regolith was oxidized to perchlorate, and nitrogen did not convert to nitrates. The obvious conclusion is that there has always been very little nitrogen in the Martian soil, although there is a reason why that reasoning might be superficial.

Accordingly, one question is, did Mars accrete with almost no nitrogen, or did it have some, and that nitrogen has disappeared. This is important, because unless nitrogen is plentiful in what is called a reduced form, life is very unlikely to evolve. Suppose the nitrogen was there in the reduced form: that means there was a lot of ammonia around. If it were, as the atmosphere oxidized and carbon species turned into carbon dioxide, the ammonia would be slowly turned into urea, which would then be carried more deeply below the surface by water. Any urea or ammonia left on the surface would be oxidised to nitrogen, and would contribute to the residue in the atmosphere. The surprise could therefore be simply the discovery of urea, which would act as he fertilizer and make the settlement viable. The important point of this, at least for me, was that the story could have the settlement declared viable at a point where the fraudsters were building up a case to cash in on compensation when the settlement failed.

A feature of a genuine scientific discovery is that once you make it, in most cases it also explains a number of other problems that had been a puzzle. In this case, the problem is, where did Martian rivers come from, Mars is too cold for water to flow now, and when these rivers did flow, the sun was only about 2/3 as strong as now. There is significant evidence that Mars has never been above – 60  for any reasonable length of time. Had there been ammonia around, water can flow down to -80,  so the story can be given more credibility. This, admittedly, is something of a special case, but I think there are other options if we do not need to know too many genuine facts. Thus, if something ‘amazing’ only applies to one thing, it looks suspiciously like the proverbial ‘magic wand’, designed to do nothing more than get the author out of a plot hole.

For interested readers, on December 13, Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk will have promotional specials of both Red Gold and Planetary Formation and Biogenesis, the latter of which gives far more details of this theory.