”Hey you, Jan… do you believe in the Big Bang?”
The question was asked in such a way that it was obvious that the question was both well thought through, and urgent. The reaction of the other students made it clear that there was a general interest in the discussion that was about to ensue. How should you, as a teacher, react to such a question? How the question is answered may well be more important than the answer itself.
Science is just as exciting as the mathematics involved. If you really want to know what’s going on, the scientific method has got a set of strict rules on how to go about one’s efforts to reach a greater understanding. Before you’ve even presented your hypothesis, you’ve already clearly defined and limited the upcoming work. The mathematics should also hold up. If you can ”count it into submission”, you’ve not even come up with a hypothesis. The hypothesis you then present should also be testable.
Here you are confronting the first conflict. You’re not supposed to defend the hypothesis! You’re actually supposed to pulverise that initial bit of footwork by any means necessary. New research is constantly giving us new tools. New findings in quantum mechanics echoe in cosmology. If the hypothesis can withstand the mathematical artillery, if it still stands after laboratory tests if such are possible, and still can’t be disproven in spite of your best efforts; you’re got yourself a theory. So, a scientific theory is thoroughly tested and not yet disproven. We believe it until it eventually shows its flaws and crumbles – usually as a result of an enlargement in our known reality.
It’s obvious that the question was to be treated properly – with respect.
Far too often you see people arguing about details. People who lost the big picture and quite often forgot why they started arguing in the first place. There is a risk that winning the oral battle becomes more important than listening to each other. Maybe the debate about climate change is one of the most infected ones. How about a person who just figured out that our atmosphere contains about 0,04% carbon dioxide and questions its role in global warming. He may get slapped by the argument that 97% of the scientists agree: Our CO2 emissions is a key factor in climate change. That, for sure, will convince him, won’t it?
Science should, by definition, be factual. To, during an argumentation, glide into a phase where opinions are valued rarely leads to anything substantial. If you want to share your insights and make the world understand them, you need to be able to present their foundations. It is not really constructive to present scientific arguments as though they were the result of a vote.
Apparently, the words ”that’s funny” are supposed to have been said at several discoveries – discoveries that, after having been reviewed, tested and verified, have come to have a great impact on our common knowledge. Think upon those words for a bit. ”That’s funny”. What kinds of associations come to mind?
We are born with a sense of curiosity that has most likely, at one point or another, frightened our mothers. Some of you have probably picked apart something that, according to both your parents and the instructions that came in the box, should not be picked apart. Eagerly, we’ve observed a flash of lightning during a thunderstorm to count the seconds and calculate the distance. Even as adults we’re drawn to things that scare us and fascinate us. Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, epidemics etc. Why, then, do so few want to learn more about these things? What makes medical science the antithesis of people’s health? When does the will to defend your own opinion grow stronger than the will to understand?
At times, the key to solve a murder lies with the victim. Can it be, that the scientific debate and the way in which new findings are presented to the general public are part of the reason why belief in science is being undermined? Have we allowed ourselves to be so fascinated by partial answers that we’ve forgotten about the questions that led us there, and, above all, the questions that should lead us forward?
If this is the case, we might stagnate.
Now, back to the questions posed in the headline. Science is to look for answers – to start from what you know to systematically learn something new or retry current ideas. We haven’t made up our natural laws. We’ve found them! Edwin Hubble, by studying galaxies, came to the conclusion that the redshift increases linearly with the distance to the galaxies. The efforts in that research led to Hubble’s law. Hubble was wrong about the distance to the galaxies – by a factor of seven – but the law, the principle itself, has proven to be able to stand the test of time. The law tells us that our universe is expanding. The light from an ever more distant galaxy is shifting towards longer wavelengths, redder light, which tells us that the distance increases faster than a galaxy closer to us. In other words, we can see our universe expanding – one of the fundamental underpinnings of the theory of the Big Bang. This quote from Wikipedia shows us the soul of a scientist:
”Hubble did not, however, take for granted that the redshift was caused by such a movement but remained open to alternative explanations”.
Thanks to Sebastian Holmgård!
Jan teaches mathematics and interdisciplinary science to pupils 13-16 years of age at Sursik School, Pedersöre, Finland. Space-related science often gives some sort of answer to the question “Why?”, a question quite common in math class. It also triggers curiosity, one key component in progress.