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Alien Scientist: Science Alien To Common Sense

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: March 2006, Topic: Alien Scientist, Science

Scientific revelation is perhaps most satisfying – and most welcome – when it confirms our common sense view of the world. While it does not take a qualified astronomer to predict that the sun will rise tomorrow, it is somehow comforting to know that the experts’ calculations provide reassurance that it will do so. So the revelation of an underlying order to the cosmos is not only somehow psychologically appealing but is practically useful for understanding why things are the way they are, and predicting what might happen next.

However, scientific propositions can be unsettling and even unwelcome where they suggest things that are difficult to conceive, believe, or otherwise contradict common sense.

The ability for science to confound common sense is evident when we consider phenomena beyond the extremes of normal human experience. This can easily be seen when we consider our range of standard human units: we are comfortable with millimetres and kilometres, but not nanometres or Gigametres; we relate to seconds and years, but not nanoseconds or Gigayears. But it is not only the extremities of phenomena that may confound us, but the degree to which those phenomena are analogous to our everyday experiences as fairly slow-moving, roughly metre-high, mostly aqueous-bodied medium-gravity-planetary-surface-creepers. As a result, concepts far from the range of human experience are harder for us to grasp than those that have ready analogues in our everyday lives.

For example, if we learn that a diamond or grain of salt is made up of a crystal lattice structure, however invisibly small, we can still easily imagine it as being analogous to a human-scale structure, like a building, where there are different connections and different configurations possible, that can make the structure stronger or weaker, or otherwise behave in different ways.

But when it comes to, say, relativity, it is not really analogous, and not at all intuitively obvious, that one should expect to get heavier, become foreshortened or experience time running more slowly, as one approaches the speed of light. These eventualities are so remote from our ordinary experience – say, travelling on the Joban Expressway – that it would be as easy or difficult to believe the opposite effects to occur with increasing speed. (Conversely, an ethereal alien tourist used to travelling close to the speed of light might be surprised to find itself lighter, more elongated and perceiving time to run more quickly, as it approached zero velocity in a Tokyo traffic jam.)

That said, at least with relativity we can relate to the basic concepts of mass, energy, velocity and time, and equate them however crudely with things like people observing clocks on moving railway carriages – as Einstein did to help get his point across – even if the magnitudes of the physical properties are too extreme for us to comfortably relate to.

However, the same cannot be said for the quantum-mechanical world of sub-atomic particles, where particles with properties such as ‘colour’, and ‘flavours’ – that might be ‘up’ or ‘down’, ‘strange’ or ‘charmed’ – have almost no meaningful analogues in the human world. (Perhaps ironically, these are short and sweet terms for abstruse properties, in contrast to the way that science has traditionally tended to invent complex words for rather simple everyday things, like sodium chloride or homo sapiens). The world of sub-atomic particles is in some ways so bizarre and antithetical to common sense – where normal rules of cause and effect seem not to apply – that it must be one of the most difficult areas of science to explain in normal human language (as opposed to say, the abstract language of mathematics, or the surreal prose of James Joyce).

Yet the alien nature of scientific revelation can also pertain to things more related to the familiar human-scale world – such as the origin of the human species itself. Darwin’s ideas on descent with modification were hard for some to accept partly because people had difficulty imagining the impact of very small (often invisible) changes occurring over extraordinarily long periods of time; and partly because phenomena such as speciation and natural selection are not as directly demonstrable as, say, dropping weights from a tower, or dissolving salt in water. But perhaps an additional confounding factor is that the theory of evolution has made a claim for an intellectual territory already occupied by established beliefs and assumptions, in a way that theories of quarks or mass-energy equivalence did not. In other words, it may be those areas in which a common sense view of the world is most firmly established that science’s claims seem most alien or difficult to accept.

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