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[GUEST POST] Libby McGugan on Scientists, Philosophers and Going Fishing

Libby McGugan‘s first novel, The Eidolon calls into question the very nature of reality in a contemporary SF adventure that explores deep ideas but with an edge-of-the-seat story line featuring dark matter, the CERN laboratory, and the barrier between the living and the dead.

Today she offers up something a bit more down to earth…

Scientists, Philosophers and Going Fishing

by Libby McGugan

In October 2012, an unusual meeting took place in Geneva, when CERN’s Director General, Rolf Heuer, brought together physicists, theologians and philosophers to discuss the origins of the universe. At first glance, it’s as odd as inviting a group of vegetarians on a fishing trip.

For a long time, these two camps – science and belief – were polarized worlds. They still are, but it would be a gross generalisation to say that scientists have no other beliefs and that those with beliefs don’t buy science. Conventionally though, science operates by developing theories and testing them out through observation and experiment. We reach conclusions that are the closest thing we have to truth, until some other evidence comes along to challenge it.

Then there is belief. I say belief, rather than religion, as not all people who hold wider beliefs would call themselves religious. Scientists generally have a hard time with beliefs. If you believe in a higher being, reincarnation, life after death, The Force or whatever, it can a tricky one to prove or disprove. It escapes the normal scientific methodology of being testable.

Traditionally, these two disciplines don’t see eye to eye. So why would physicists and philosophers spend time talking to the aliens from the other planet? Don’t physicists have enough to do in working out what the Higgs-like boson actually is? And don’t philosophers have enough to think about in wondering why rather than how?

History tells us that good ideas, more often than not, don’t come as a Eureka moments. They emerge slowly, often from ill-defined hunches, sparked off by chance conversations. The process can be messy, with conflict, differing opinions, impasses and failures. But it can also be incredibly productive and can open doors to unimaginable arenas.

Thomas Khun wrote a book in the sixties called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and coined the phrase ‘paradigm shift’. Most scientists share a working model of reality and a standard way of asking questions that forms the paradigm within which they work. Concepts that don’t fit into that paradigm are brushed away until such a time as mounting evidence reaches a crisis point. When researchers adopt a more inclusive approach, a revolutionary shift takes place.

So, the shift from Newtonian physics to Einstein’s relativistic worldview, from classical mechanics to quantum mechanics and the acceptance of plate tectonics to explain large-scale geological events are just a few examples.

A little bit of distance makes a lot of difference. Those who operate in disciplines removed from our own often see things we miss, with our nose flat up against the problem. And their alternative take on things, shaped by their own experience and expertise, can add rocket fuel to the ember of a hunch.

It’s thanks to cross-pollination of ideas that I’ve just enjoyed a tasty microwave meal. (Lazy, yes. Normal for me, no. But I had this blog post to write, so 5 mins on high versus 30 mins of chopping = no contest.) The idea of a compact cooking machine based on microwave radiation wasn’t the brainchild of a thermodynamics scientist. It wasn’t until WW2, when microwaves were investigated for use in radar, that Percy Spencer, the American engineer and inventor, noticed that standing in front of a magnetron melted his chocolate bar. And so the link between microwave radiation and cooking was forged.

Or take old tires and infant mortality. The company Design that Matters, who used collaborators in industry and academia to develop a neonatal incubator that runs on car parts, has made it possible, practical and far cheaper for developing countries to benefit from them.

The concept of working in isolated silos, driven by competition and copyright protection, is outdated. While competition still adds spice, we’re beginning to realise the benefits of stepping back, connecting more freely and seeing what comes up when we have a coffee with an alien. Programs such as BigIdeas@Berkeley, or those run at the Santa Fe Institute, which brings together physicists, biologists, social scientists and businesspeople, illustrate this. Cross-pollination, or interdisciplinarity, is big, but it’s not a new idea – it was something else the Greek philosophers came up with and the rest of us forgot.

So perhaps Rolf Heuer’s idea to talk to alternative thinkers is not as crazy as it first seems. While, predictably, it appears that there were some irreconcilable views at this first meeting, it’s a bold start and one that may spark off a new understanding of things. We’re at the dawn of a new physics – we’re feeling our way into a whole new quantum world, where not much makes sense. Stopping and asking for another perspective seems like a good idea. Perhaps, once the mist clears, we’ll find we’re debating different facets of the same thing.

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