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The Joys of Scientific Revolutions

I have loved science since I was just a wee nerd.

That love of science should be evident to anyone reading “Kraken of Eden”.

I wanted a thrilling monster story about a plausible monster. I wanted truly alien aliens on a truly alien world. I wanted to explore what could be different versus what must be the same. I wanted our scientists racing to understand what they were facing through sound scientific methods.

I also wanted to explore something that I believe is important and timely. I wanted to explore the degree to which our conceptual frameworks constrain our imagination.

Here’s what I didn’t want. I didn’t want yet another exploration of scientific hubris. Heartless, arrogant scientists are all too common in popular culture in stories that come across (at least to me) as condemnations of science.

Our daily lives are increasingly depending on the practical application of science, yet the average person demonstrates both a disdain for science and a profound lack of understanding with regard to the scientific method. I suspect part of this is a generation of screen writers bored to tears during science classes for want of inspirational teachers.

Here’s the thing.

The scientific method really isn’t that complicated. It’s really just orderly thinking. We make observations, we see patterns, we come up with ideas to explain the patterns, and we apply these ideas to make predictions.

Let’s poke at this.

First, note that I wrote ‘to make predictions’. Science is about making useful predictions. ‘Truth’ is the province of religion.

That doesn’t mean scientists don’t believe their theories are true!

But it does mean that if you present a scientist with an observation that breaks their theory, sure, they’ll question it. Sure, they’ll want to see it repeated. Sure, they’ll try to find a way to reconcile it with the theory.

But, ultimately, if the observation breaks the theory, they will amend or replace the theory with something better, then continue to move forward.

Amending or replacing our theories enables us to make ever richer models and ever better predictions about everything from tomorrow’s weather to plotting a course to intercept a celestial body with a probe.

That means that scientists are always looking for the observations that don’t quite fit, because those are the observations that improve theories and models and predictions.

Scientists searching for the exceptions that will improve theories are all too often misinterpreted by people that don’t understand the scientific method with questioning the science.

Probing climate science and finding discrepancies that lead to better models for climate change does NOT mean scientists are questioning human caused climate change.

Studies that refine our understanding of the health implications of our dietary habits does NOT mean anyone’s questioning the health hazards of tobacco.

Studies that revise our understanding of evolutionary processes do NOT mean scientists are questioning the validity of evolutionary theory.

That all said, there ARE times when an observation is so profound, it goes beyond revising theories.

We do, in science and in our lives, form paradigms. Conceptual frameworks for how we see the world that include presumptions so fundamental that we no longer realize we are filtering the world around us through these presumptions.

Until we make an observation that is so inconsistent with our world view, so disruptive, that we step back, step outside our conceptual framework, and see the universe in a new light.

Copernicus struggling to reconcile the complex movement of the planets in the night sky (the word ‘planet’ means ‘wanderer’) with Earth as the center of the universe, then realizing it all made much more sense if the Earth and the planets were orbiting the sun.

Darwin noticing that Galapagos finches diversified from source stock on the mainland to ecological niches inhabited by other species on the mainland.

Einstein realizing that the speed of light is a constant regardless of your frame of reference.

My favorite example is Antoine Lavoisier, raised in a conceptual framework that all things are composed of air, earth, water, and fire (blood is warm and red because it is composed of water and fire) wanted to determine the mass of fire. So he weighed a log, burned the log to release the fire, and weighed the results in order to determine the mass of the fire that had been released. But it GAINED mass, which would mean fire has NEGATIVE mass, a result he could not accept. So he stepped back and reimagined the universe, proposing the oxidation/reduction model that is the foundation of modern chemistry.

I wanted the Eden science team to be confronted with an intellectual crisis, an observation that breaks their conceptual framework. Not to suggest they are in any way intellectually inadequate or dogmatic.

Instead, I wanted to explore how real scientists, confronted with an observation that should not be possible, finally accept the reality of that observation, revise their conceptual framework, and then apply the scientific method to deal with the threat they face.

If you’ve read, and hopefully enjoyed, “Kraken of Eden”, I’d love to hear whether you think I was successful…

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