Thursday, July 16, 2015

Achieving clarity

It's been fascinating watching the progress of the New Horizons probe this week. The device itself was launched off to Pluto 10 years ago and this plucky little machine (to anthropomorphize) has been speeding through space ever since and finally had it's closest pass-by on Tuesday. As it hurtled past the ball of rock and ice at a range of around 8000 miles it loaded up it's flash memory chips with hi-resolution pictures of this much maligned dwarf-planet. To conserve precious energy this data will now take many months to download to receiving stations on Earth, however, from the early compressed pictures arriving at our radar dishes the results are super-impressive.

Science is a process we use to achieve clarity. Most things we don't understand or can't clearly see whether that's a planet, a person or a proton, eventually yield to the relentless processes of reason, you could say that Science is the ultimate resolution resolver. In the picture above you can clearly see this process of improving resolution over time and this image put me in mind of a book I read recently called "Faith vs. Fact" by Jerry Coyne. It's an interesting book that explores why, at their core, Science and Religion (the idea of "faith" in particular) are incompatible.

Now, many religious apologists get all huffy at this claim and point out examples of religious scientists who's existence, in their view, make it a false one. But (as is explored in depth in this book) the fact that some scientists are also religious only really shows that Human beings are capable of compartmentalising their brains sufficiently to hold contradictory ideas at the same time, i.e. as a species we can cope quite well with cognitive dissonance, although anyone who's been married for a few years could have illuminated that fact!

In the end it boils down to this picture. Science and reason provide us with mechanisms and processes that move us from left to right, i.e. they increase resolution, improving clarity and understanding, but importantly at any point in time, don't necessarily provide the ultimate resolution. Each one of these pictures is useful and helps us to understand the nature of Pluto a little bit better but, for example, none yet tells us what's going on under the surface. To answer that question we would need to invest in more Science to find out (like sending a probe to actually drill into the rocks etc.). Religion on the other hand, seems to me to move us from left to right. If I asked someone today to describe "God" I'd probably get the same kind of answer as if I asked someone plucked from the Middle East 4000 years ago; the answers would certainly be different but the resolution would not have improved.


Chairman Bill said...

Wish the Independent had some clarity. Saw a Facebook article of theirs today about the people at the LHC discovering pentaquarks, but the cover image showed a jet engine.

Steve Borthwick said...

Very strange those people at the Guardian, no charm either...