Thursday, January 12, 2006


Science & Magic Part II

Yesterday I said science functions like magic in the popular mind. Some of the comparisons I made should have riled up any scientifically literate readers I may have; therefore, I lay out these conflations in a little more detail below.

I said, "Both entail long apprenticeships in arcane and esoteric arts." I can easily imagine a science teacher objecting that basic science is neither arcane nor esoteric. Here we need to distinguish between technology and science, application and research, results and process. I would agree that requiring children to look through a microscope presents nothing obscure or terribly difficult. However, the means by which we came to understand what we are looking at, something we call the "scientific method," takes a great deal of effort to effectively communicate.

Science as generally understood, as the cutting edge of human knowledge, is nothing if not arcane and esoteric.

Just try to explain a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, dark energy and the expansion of the universe to someone you bump into on the elevator. Or try to explain the research on new DNA analysis technology; or the theoretical limits on integrated circuit technology.

Well, maybe you could produce a cogent description of these matters in 30 seconds.

But imagine the process by which one comes to work on these problems. Typically one needs 27 to 30 undergraduate college credits in physics, chemistry or mathematics; then another 36 or so credits of graduate work for the Master’s degree; then additional credit hours plus a dissertation to get the PhD. For the vast majority of working scientists; that is the apprenticeship. And the day-to-day details of working with, say, a Bose-Einstein condensate are, unh, arcane and esoteric.

Speaking of science and magic, I said, "Both involve secret or dead languages" In stories about magic, we often see a book of runes, mysterious symbols, and writing in dead languages. Like Indiana Jones, deciphering ancient codes betwixt battles with sorcerers and Nazis. It wasn't that long ago that the primary language of scholars was Latin. The idea was to insulate and isolate scholarly work from common eyes. Nowadays, we see medicine, with its need to elevate the authority of physicians, as an exemplar of the use of needlessly complicated Latin phrases. Why do prescriptions bear the letters "B.I.D.?" They stand for bis in die, Latin for "twice a day." The cultural reasons for this are quite interesting, but not pertinent. Suffice it to say that modern medicine requires a scientific basis and rationale.

But medicine is not the only place where we see a dead language on life support. Biology uses significant amounts of ancient Greek and Latin in nomenclature, almost of necessity. With millions of species to classify, the use of these languages seems almost mandated.

Physics, astronomy and chemistry each have their own special vocabularies. There is no need to go into the justification for terms like mole; Planck's constant; or event horizon. The point, that these terms are not part of the common vocabulary, is obvious.

Another assertion I made about science and magic was "Both follow their own, internal logic and posses internal consistency." The objection could be raised that the whole point of magic is the violation of commonly observed natural laws. Magic, by definition, is inconsistent with everyday experience of the way things usually work. Such an objection misses the point; stories about magic require internal consistency. If, for example, the story says that spells are required for magic to work, you cannot suddenly eliminate this requirement and grant wishes that are not in the form of a spell. Suppose your hero's mouth is taped shut. Since he cannot utter spells, he cannot work magic. To violate the internal consistency rule would annoy readers. This actually stems from the requirement of all narratives for internal consistency.

The other points in yesterday's post appear sufficiently evident to obviate further explanation.

As an interesting aside - the criticism of evolution and science in general is often made that science is "incomplete." That is, there are "gaps" that are not explained by a particular science story such as evolution. To a scientist, any actual gaps are the most interesting parts of his discipline, because that's where new discoveries are most likely. But consider extending the argument of Kurt Goedel's incompleteness theorem to consistent science. In essence, if science if consistent, it is logically required to be incomplete.
As always, comments are welcome.

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