August 15, 2010

IN THE END, IT'S JUST A MATTER OF AESTHETICS:

The faith that underpins science (New Scientist, 8/09/10)

Albert Einstein once asked, does the moon exist when no one is looking at it? Such questions had been the preserve of philosophers, but with the discovery of quantum mechanics in the 1920s they became legitimate queries for physicists, too.

Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, did not believe that science grants us access to an objective reality and insisted that the task of physics was not to find out "how nature is" but only "what we can say about nature". Einstein, on the other hand, maintained an unshakeable belief in a reality that exists out there. Otherwise, he said, "I simply cannot see what it is that physics is meant to describe".

Einstein based his view of quantum mechanics on his belief in an independent reality - the moon does exist when no one is looking at it. In contrast, Bohr used the theory to construct and underpin his belief that the atomic realm has no independent reality. The two agreed on the equations but disagreed on what they meant.

"Scientists, like everyone else, have beliefs," writes distinguished mathematician E. Brian Davies in Why Beliefs Matter. He is not only referring to religious beliefs but to philosophical ones, too. While religious beliefs can be easy to leave at the laboratory door, philosophical beliefs are much harder to sideline.


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Posted by Orrin Judd at August 15, 2010 9:00 AM
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