Thursday, September 25, 2014

Feynman - Not Knowing Things.

Richard Feynman is thought to be a strong candidate for the smartest man since Einstein and Tesla. It is hard to disagree with him. But I think this has to be parsed.

I think he is quite right about science. People had a lot of evidence that Newton was right, but then Einstein came along with a very different formulation which made a prediction of an observation that was different than the prediction made by Newton's theory of gravity. There were several tries to make that observation, and finally it was made successfully and the data supported Einstein and not Newton. Scientists have not found a prediction from Newton's theory of gravitation that is better supported by data than an alternative prediction from Einstein's theory. Nor has anyone come up with a theory, the predictions of which are superior to those of Einstein's theory.

But scientists dearly hope that such a theory will be produced -- thus their acceptance of Einstein's theory of Relativity is not that it is "true" but only that they have been unable after many attempts to find a prediction that from the theory that is demonstrated to be false. Of course, it someone came up with such an observation, the immediate assumption would be that the observation was wrong -- that a mistake had been made in the prediction or the measurement. Only when the accuracy of the extrapolation of the theory in the prediction has been verified independently, and when the observation has been replicated independently will scientists accept the new theory as better than the one it supplants.

The alternative view is that something may be true enough for all practical purposes. I am pretty sure that when Prof. Feynman put his shoes on in the morning he did not spend a lot of time wondering if they were really where he perceived them to be, nor whether he would be successful in putting them on in the same way he had put shoes on many, many times before. Maybe someone played a practical joke during the night and those assumptions would not be true, but like all of us he would proceed on the basis that the assumptions were true enough for the practical purpose at hand.

I do love the idea that there are questions to which I will never know the answers, and indeed questions which I may never be able adequately to formulate. Maybe someone will come along in a while, perhaps a long while and find an answer or formulate a better new question.


John Daly said...

After writing this post I found this article, "Rethinking the origins of the universe".

It reports a new calculation giving a prediction from theory that seems to fit observation data and denies the existence of black holes. Scientists are no doubt salivating about the chance of reviewing the calculations and experimenting.

John Daly said...

And then there is this: "What Hawking meant when he said ‘there are no black holes’"

And "Yes, Virginia, There Are Black Holes"