MSP37: AN IDIOT'S GUIDE TO SCIENCE

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MSP37: AN IDIOT'S GUIDE TO SCIENCE

Science. It’s tricky stuff. Just as you think you’ve come to grips with nature’s mysteries, a quantum physicist fires you into another dimension. Should we stop worrying and let Schrödinger’s cat out of the bag? It’s time to Mattsplain. 

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Science is hard. We take things for granted, like the sky staying where it is, because, well, trying to figure out why takes way more brainpower and energy than most of us have to spare. Someone who has never let a lack of brainpower or energy dissuade him from doing anything is Kulturpop’s Matt Armitage.

 

What are we Mattsplaining this week?

·      Everything. Life, the universe, Why 42 is the best number of cars to own.

·      Today we’re going to try and tackle all of the important questions.

·      The mysteries of science. 

·      The secrets of chemistry.

·      Why BFM continues to give me this show.

·      Today is an idiot’s guide. Not because you guys are idiots but because this idiot has figured some stuff out.

·      Probably the biggest secret, is that we don’t need to worry about all the stuff we don’t understand because nobody does. Yet.

 

That means that someone has published a handy guide to something, right?

·      Pretty much. The 30thJune edition of New Scientist featured a bunch of thorny scientific topics cut down into bite size chunks. 

·      I know it sounds weird that they would do that, given that it’s a scientific magazine, and you might assume a certain level of expertise and knowledge among its readers. Except for me and Jeff. 

·      But that brings me to topic number 1, which the NS doesn’t actually cover…

 

Scientists themselves?

·      Exactly. In the media you often hear people like me saying: a bunch of scientists have published a paper on invisibility, or high altitude newts or something. 

·      We use the term scientist interchangeably, as though all scientists are the same.

·      But that’s really lax and lazy on our part. 

·      It’s understandable to a point: When we study the sciences at school, it may seem that not much separates biology, or physics or chemistry.

·      But that’s because we’re looking at the building blocks. The common foundations that scientific knowledge is built on.

·      The people we call scientists, the ones who have studied and are experts, are way past the building blocks.

 

You mean it’s a bit like the universe. When you look up at the stars you think, okay, this may be knowable. 

·      Yeah, when you study science at school and you think, I can handle these.

·      But when you go onto university, you can’t study all the disciplines. There’s too much science to even think about, let alone understand.

·      You have to narrow your focus and follow your interests.

·      You aren’t looking at the big picture so much any more. You’re working on your one tiny piece of the jigsaw and hoping that the scientific community as a whole will put the picture together. 

·      Some people spend their whole lives researching molluscs and bivalve organisms.

·      That’s not a slur. There’s so much to research and discover there.

·      Other people will spend their working lives looking at a handful of cold or flu viruses.

·      The more involved you get in your preferred scientific field, 

·      the more you realise there is to know 

o  and that even enormous breakthroughs only contribute a tiny amount to expanding our knowledge as a whole.

 

Which explains one of the things we often mention on the show, that scientists don’t really collaborate much outside their own discipline.

·      That’s one of the areas where laypeople like ourselves may have an advantage over the experts.

·      They’re so ensconced is in their own world that they may not make the connections between disciplines that our ignorance allows us to make.

·      For example, we know that the search for new antibiotics is bringing together medical researchers, soil and marine biologists.

·      We’ve also reported in the past on cases in the social sciences, when economists have teamed up with historians to help build models that predict the development of our societies and economies.

 

So we shouldn’t assume that a biologist has any more knowledge of astrophysics than any of our listeners?

·      They probably have a better idea had to process the terminology and certainly some of the basic ideas, but why should we assume that they have any of that higher knowledge than turns you from an interested party into an expert?

·      Will a chemist automatically understand Bitcoin?

·      Should we assume that a cryptologist understands the circulatory system of a tapir?

·      No, because what we consider to be science is so broad and lots of its parts are unconnected.

·      So, today, we’re going to have a look at some of the biggest ideas and mysteries in science.

·      We’ll try and explain some of them, and with others will tell you why it’s perfectly fine not to understand them.

 

Excusing ignorance sounds like a Mattsplained thing to do. Where shall we start? With the concept of scientific understanding itself?

·      As I just said, science is a bit of a misnomer.

·      It’s a really broad church. Scientists don’t understand science, they just understand the little bit of it that they’re looking at.

·      It’s quite hard to convey how enormous those tiny little slices of science are to the rest of us.

·      Take someone like Stephen Hawking. Drop him into the basket of science and he’s a droplet. Pretty much a know nothing in the grander scheme of things.

·      If Stephen Hawking was a know nothing, what does that make us?

·      So yes, with that hard truth let’s go with another; scientific truth itself.

 

Do we misunderstand what scientific truth is?

·      Massively. Especially as we seem to be moving into an era where all knowledge is doubted.

·      Our knowledge of the various branches of science is constantly evolving and enlarging.

·      We’ll talk about multiverses later, but I’m mentioning it here to illustrate that the scope of our frame of reference is continuously expanding.

·      It would be great if we were able to think about science in terms of incontestable truths.

·      But we can’t do that. Not everything is demonstrable.

·      We might lack the technology to prove an idea is true.

·      Realising that truth might be incredibly dangerous.

·      We might suppose that a pathogen has the potential to be incredibly infectious and deadly.

·      That doesn’t mean that we go and road-test it on London or Singapore just to prove a point.

 

In a sense we rely on supposition and theories?

·      Yes. It’s a bit like creating a map.

·      We are trying to make the map as comprehensive as possible, adding hills and streams and the occasional village.

·      But there are lots of places that we think should be on the map, or things that we know are on the map but we can’t actually visit.

·      Science makes us all a bit like Christopher Columbus, we think we’ve found a new route to India when in actual fact we’re making an unscheduled colonial pit stop at the Americas.

 

Isn’t it a little backward to formulate a hypothesis and then look for ways to prove it?

·      I think we have to be realistic about these things.

·      Some discoveries may start with that eureka moment.

·      But I think far more are probably achieved by the colossal drudge of hours and hours of painstaking work, poring over books, models and statistics.

·      We have to leap into the unknown sometimes.

 

The process of induction?

·      That’s right. And it’s why methodology is so important in science.

·      Induction on its own can be a dangerous tool.

·      The new scientist quotes the classic philosophical argument by David Hume in the 18thcentury.

·      If you check the colour of all the swans you can find, & all of them are white, then you might use that evidence to deduce that all swans are white.

·      Then you start to state it as a fact: All swans are white.

·      But what if you forgot to check the pond in the field next door, where a black swan is happily floating around and being mean in its regal fashion?

·      Suddenly, some swans are black and all swans are white is no longer a fact.

·      The 20thCentury philosopher Karl Popper tried to overcome the weaknesses of the induction method, by introducing the concept of refutability.

 

In other words, we look for things we can disprove?

·      I’m really simplifying and paraphrasing here, Popper held that there are no absolute truths.

·      So we aren’t looking to prove something but to shine a light on the things we can disprove.

·      So let’s say I had a theory that doughnuts were healthy.

·      Firstly, someone would point out that they’re fried in oil.

·      Secondly, they’re coated in sugar.

·      Thirdly, etc etc until it becomes pretty clear that doughnuts are not especially healthy.

·      With things that are more likely to be true then my example, you chip away at the surroundings of the hypothesis. 

·      When you’ve figured out which bits are wrong, what you have leftover is most likely to be true.

 

That’s the methodology that most scientists should use?

·      It’s the methodology they should be using, but scientists aren’t superheroes any more than Elon Musk is.

·      They are as fragile and brittle as ordinary people. Some are selfless. Some are egotistical. Most fall somewhere in the middle, like we all do.

·      Some scientists are well funded and others are desperate to make a breakthrough that will bring funding to keep not only themselves but a team of researchers in work.

·      Others are conducting work for commercial organisations where there is a clear profit motive attached to their work.

·      All of this can affect your commitments to refutability; whether consciously or subconsciously.

 

And you think that’s part of the reason we have for the explosion of alternative facts?

·      Yes because there are so many parties interested in the politicisation of Scientific research and its findings.

·      Media is part of this problem as well, for which I hold up my hands and say I’m sorry.

·      It’s easy to see that 2+2 = 4, that we can predict the tides, that gravity is holding us down.

·      Not all sciences is as definite as that.

·      For example, we reported on the show a year or two ago about the crisis in psychology the fact that many of its experiments can’t be replicated.

·      Sometimes, when we talk about science and think about science, we have to remember that some of its branches maybe more subjective than others.

 

When we come back, or if we come back, or at least in one of the dimensions where we do come back, we will be Mattsplaining the multiverse.

 

BREAK

 

We’ve had a lot of different Matt’s on this show. Present Matt is our usual suspect but Future Matt comes and visits sometimes, although Past Matt is someone we hear about rather than from.

 

In a Multiverse, what Matt can we expect to be hearing from?

·      Hello. I’m Multi Matt.

·      I live in a version of your world that is very different. 

·      In our world, cats are the rulers. 

·      In that world I have a very important job: I am the Chief Mouse Catcher to His Highness, King Jaff R

·      Fortunately, cats sleep a lot so when our mousters are napping we have plenty of time to study, so we are much smarter than you.

 

So you can tell us how the multiverse works?

·      Even though our worlds are both products of the multiverse, we cannot say for certain how the multiverse works.

·      What is increasingly likely is that the multiverse is a fact rather than a theory.

·      We just have to work out which version of the theory is the actual one.

·      Wait. There are mice in your studio. [play clip of rats/mice squeaking] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZMuHPpG7OwY

·      I think we’ve lost Multi Matt. Possibly a good thing, The other mes are all so weird. 

·      What was he saying? We can’t inhabit the same space at the same time so I don’t know how far he got.

 

He was about to talk us through the various multiverse alternative theories.

·      Ok. He didn’t get very far.

·      So to give you some context, Sean Carroll at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena is quoted in The new scientist as saying that the multi-verse is the prediction of theories we have good reason to think correct. 

·      Let’s start with the cosmological multiverses.

·      Here the theory goes that just after the big bang Space time starting to expand exponentially.

·      Quantum effects, which we don’t have to worry about and may or may not be helpful to think of as lumps in the gravy, started to slow or end that expansion in different parts of space-time. 

 

And these slowed down regions became bubble universes, like the one that we live in?

·      Due to the constraints of physics we are stuck in our bubble. Even if we travelled at close to the speed of light, we would never be able to reach the end of our constantly expanding bubble.

·      In any case, you probably wouldn’t want to jump into another bubble universe, because it’s unlikely the things we considered to be the constants of nature, such as the mass of an electron, would be duplicated in another universe.

·      In fact string theory predicts around 10 to the 500 configurations of physics across the multiverse.

 

What’s that in real numbers?

·      That’s 10 with 500 zeroes. I don’t even know if that has a name.

·      As far as you or I are concerned it might as well be infinity.

·      Because we can afford to be more ignorant than scientists.

 

There’s also a many worlds theory, isn’t there?

·      Yes. In a way, that’s more straightforward than the cosmological multiverse and floating in bubbles, but way more mind bending. 

·      Every time you make a decision or a choice, the world will split according to the number of those choices.

·      If you want that in slightly more scientific terms, the quantum world exists in what’s known as a fuzzy state.

·      When we make a choice, or we observe something, we are essentially forcing that thing into existence.

·      But that choice also forces all the other possible outcomes into existence, which break off as parallel worlds.

 

Like Schrodinger’s Cat?

·      Yes. We’ll be getting back to the cats soon. Gosh, I’m having so much nerdy fun today. 

·      Parallel worlds. Do you want to know where all those parallel worlds are?

·      They exist in a version of space that isn’t space.

·      What I mean if they exist inside some kind of mathematical structure, but that structure doesn’t look anything like the universes we inhabit.

 

Do we have to worry about Multi Matt and Multi Jeff?

·      No. Our many worlds selves exist entirely independently of us and each other.

·      There is no way we can reach from one world and influence another. 

·      So we don’t have to worry about all our duplicate selves. 

·      I had to get special permission to break all the laws of physics in order to bring Multi Matt here. 

·      It cost an absolute fortune and diverted the use of supercollider for a fortnight and it turns out the guy’s more interested in mice.

·      Trust me, dealing with the past and future versions of yourself is more than enough.

 

Let’s get to the real meat of today’s show. Who killed Schrodinger’s Cat?

·      Most of us are aware of Schrodinger’s cat, the thought experiment that places a cat in a box and wonders whether it’s alive or dead.

·      Hopefully, I can make this next bit clear, but you may want to download the podcast and listen to this next bit again because it gets a bit twisty.

·      This is the one most of us know and it’s known as the standard Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory:

·      This holds that the cat is simultaneously alive and dead until you open the box to check on it.

·      In which case, by golly, the cat is alive. Generally when you hear people talking about this model the cat is usually dead.

·      I like cats, so for me, the cat is alive by default.

 

If I’ve got this right, while it is in the box the cat is fuzzy. It’s alive and dead at the same time. When you open the box, you are bringing one of those outcomes into existence. The cat can only be alive or dead. What happens in the many worlds approach?

·      Much the same. Except there isn’t an either or.

·      If you open the box and find that the cat is alive, then you are also creating a New World in which the cat will be dead.

·      Except that neither you or the cat will ever know that it had another option.

·      But that’s not the most bonkers outcome.

 

Is this where you talk about Quantum Bayesianism?

·      Yes. Under this theory, it’s not the cat in the box which is uncertain.

·      The cat is definitely alive.

·      What’s at fault is our state of mind.

·      To understand this we have to accept that there are fundamental limits on what we know about reality.

·      Inside the box the cat is alive and well. When we look at the cat our brain is just catching up with the cat’s reality.

·      And even that’s not the most bonkers outcome. 

·      There’s another one called the objective collapse theory. This posits that we don’t force anything into being by observing it.

·      Things leak into the surroundings via something that is called a spontaneous wave function collapse and then they eventually disappear. 

·      Which is so bonkers that it’s entirely baffling.

 

Are we ever likely to find out what really happens to the cat?

·      The cat is in what is termed as a superposition – in that it’s alive and dead at the same time. 

·      We can now do experiments that put molecules and electrical circuits into these superpositions and test them.

·      We’ve talked about quantum computing and the ability of its ones and zeroes to do multiple calculations in different dimensions at the same time. Or something like that.

·      Some researchers are now looking at ways to do this kind of testing with viruses and biological organisms. Things that are almost but not quite alive.

 

I think we’re running out of time…

·      And that goes to show how little you and the rest of us understand about time.

·      We’re not running out of time. In fact this show is already over and hasn’t even started,

 

That’s confusing…

·      We think of time as being linear. That it moves forward at a constant rate.

·      In relation to our own lives, it almost does.

·      Our lives are quite constant, we live on a planet that rotates at a pretty constant speed and maintains the same gravitational field throughout our lives.

·      This is partly what gives us the false idea the time is an absolute. Because we don’t see it in relation to anything else.

 

Einstein?

·      Relativity, baby, 

·      According to the standard model of physics, Space time is altered by gravity and motion.

·      So the New Scientist suggests we adopt two rules when thinking about time.

·      Rule one forget the idea that time always ticks at the same rate

·      Rule two: be prepared to deny that it ticks at all.

 

Does that mean I’m never actually late to the office?

·      Yes although I’m not sure that your HR department will accept this pod cast as evidence.

·      As I said, we tend to think of time as being linear.

·      In the standard model of physics, Einstein’s relativity would seem to suggest that reality is actually static.

·      It’s a four dimensional block of space time, inside which all of time exists all at once.

·      In the quantum model of physics, time should work just as effortlessly forwards as it does backwards.

·      If you’re wondering, on the evidence from this show, it would seem that quantum physics is a cross between a VCR recorder and a choose your own adventure novel.

·      I don’t know if that in any way tracks to the life experiences of quantum physicists.

 

You aren’t doing a great job of making this clear.

·      That’s because we’re in a quantum world where I suck.

·      Competent Matt is off in another world.

·      Even our greatest minds still don’t understand time.

·       Earlier, or was it tomorrow, I mentioned scientists who spend their lives researching bivalves.

·      There are plenty of scientists devoting their lives to explore time, even though they may suspect they’ve already done it. Or that they may never start.

·      Marina Cortes at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh describes time as the most mysterious aspect of nature.

 

So it’s fine that we don’t understand time? 

·      No one does.

·      Our linear concept may be wrong, but it helps to make sense of our lives. 

·      For most of us, that’s enough.

·      Like I said at the start, there are some things that it’s okay, or even more practical, for us to be ignorant about.

·      And that’s precisely why we shouldn’t denigrate and dump on scientists for dealing with all the stuff we don’t want to think about.

·      In any case, today’s show never happened and I was never here. 

Matt Armitage