Date: December 2nd, 2012
Title:Encore: The Truth in Science and Astronomy
Podcaster: Elmar von Agris, Castrop-Rauxel, Germany
This podcast has been aired on September 11th, 2011
Description: This is an enjoyable philosophical 10-minute review about theories in science and especially astronomy. Can scientists prove that a theory is “true”? Maybe they can’t. And what is “The Truth” at all? Can we know “The Truth”? Why does science make sense even if scientists don’t know “The Truth”?
Bio: My name is Elmar von Agris and I’ve never missed a 365 DOA episode. I’m from a middle sized city in Germany that nobody can pronounce (Castrop-Rauxel), married, 42 years old, two children, and product manager for foot and ankle implants. I started out as a hobby astronomer in the early stages of my life ever since I watched Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. The things that I’m especially interested in are planets, solar eclipses, cosmology and also physics, math, philosophy, tennis, running, books for children and (that’s new) producing podcasts.
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Welcome to the “365 Days of Astronomy” Podcast. My name is Elmar von Agris. I started out as a hobby astronomer in the early stages of my life ever since I watched Neil Armstrong walking on the moon when I was six months old. This was the starting point of my passion.
My topic today in my very first podcast is nothing less than The Truth, the truth in science and astronomy. Look out! Can you handle The Truth? Be prepared!
Yesterday, my children Luise and Julius and I observed Beta Cygni, Albireo, a very nice double star in the constellation “Swan”, representing the head of the swan or the basis of the “Northern Cross”. We viewed Albireo with the naked eye and it appeared to be a single star. However, with my low cost telescope it readily resolved into a double star. Luise told me about the amber-blue-green contrast between the two components, but I couldn’t see the different colors due to me being color blind and I doubted that her observation was true. Her response was clear: I’m crazy…
Her point of view was obviously different than mine and I realized that The Truth could depend on the person. The perception of colors is definitely very subjective.
Isaac Newton made the observation in a dark room that a prism decomposes white light into many colors that form the visible spectrum. However, what is the nature of white light? Is it a special color or is it a mixture of different colors? Nearly 200 years later Johann Wolfgang von Goethe performed a similar experiment in a light room, but his results were more empirical and subjective. Physicists don’t like that. If the theory depends on human eyes as detectors, we’ll have problems. Goethe’s theory and his influence extend primarily to the world of art. Newton’s theory was better for scientists, because his statements were more independent from the observer and his theory allowed to go further, to ask further questions. For example: What is “left” and “right” from the spectrum? Is there anything “redder” than red? Today we know there is infrared light. Or is there anything “more violet” than the violet at the other end of the spectrum? Yes, there is ultra-violet light.
But can science help us to find The Truth? So, are you ready for The Truth? Here it comes: Science can’t tell you anything about The Truth. Luise told me: “What I can see has to be true!”
What is The Truth? First of all: Things that I think have to be consistent to things that I see. But what I see depends on the person, the instruments and maybe even the time and so on… It doesn’t seem to be easy to tell what The Truth is.
Physicists try to solve The Truth with a pragmatic approach: If we don’t know the complete truth, maybe we know parts of it. We start asking a very simple question: Is my definition consistent without any contradictions? E.g.: “I lie.” Huh? Do I lie…or don’t I? This problem can’t be solved by logic. Physicists want to get rid of it. The Truth is not a subject matter of physics. But physicists are able to tell you what is not wrong. Then their cognitive skills have come to an end. They try to approach The Truth with science.
If you’re confused now, don’t worry. I was just as confused as you. An example:
Galileo Galilei’s famous experiment: A ball rolls down a declined plane. When he set up his experiment he had an idea, a model in mind. This model influenced his experiment and the results do verify his model or do not verify his model. It’s an interaction between theory (the model) and experiment. The theory allows to make a prediction and the experiment is set up to approve or not to approve. If you can’t get the approval for the theory through the experiment throw the theory away.
Another example: A theory is described by “All swans are white.” I’ll never be sure that this theory is right, even if I’ve seen white swans my entire live. It could be possible that tomorrow I’ll see a black swan. Then my theory is incorrect. Ever since seeing Nathalie Portman’s film “The Black Swan” we know that my theory is garbage.
Physicists try to find out, if something is not wrong. They call it Hypothesis of Falsification. They have no clue about The Truth.
Anyway, physicists and I still believe that with the help of science we choose the best way to approach The Truth as close as possible. With this statement I feel confident. Science is the tool to come close to The Truth. We converge to The Truth without the chance of reaching it.
However, is there an absolute truth to approach? What about the Theory of Everything? The universe started with the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. In the very beginning of the universe the four basic forces were combined and could be described in only one formula. Is this the end of research? Is this The Truth? No, people like you and me are able to continue asking. Where does it come from? Why is it like that?
You can get the impression that The Truth is subject to running modifications. Our belief of matter changed within 2000 years from a four-elements-nature consisting of fire, air, water and soil to a completely different thing. And now? The world is made of atoms, atomic nucleuses, quarks with nearly no mass but binding energy. Our way of seeing the world made of four elements and the world made of nearly nothing than binding energy changed dramatically. Nearly nobody understands it any more. And our way of seeing the universe changed dramatically, too. Who spins around whom? In ancient times we thought the universe was small. Now the universe seems to be incredibly enormous. It’s much more difficult to understand and to believe the new findings.
There is an absolute limit and we try to approach the limit as close as possible, but we know at any time that we’ll never reach it.
I hope you’ve handled The Truth well!
Thank you for listening to the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast. I hope you enjoyed it and I apologize for my strange German accent. This is Elmar von Agris. You can find me on Twitter under @CosmicMonsta and on Facebook or send me an email under firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good bye and clear skies!
End of podcast:
365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by libsyn.com and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at 365DaysOfAstronomy.org or email us at info@365DaysOfAstronomy.org. Until tomorrow…goodbye.