Category: Science

I should have posted this a month ago when our first episode came out, but now that the second one is now available, why not now?  Our plans earlier this year to develop a podcast within The Christian Humanist Network ( have finally come to fruition, and I’m truly excited about where things are heading.Galileo_facing_the_Roman_Inquisition

Our first episode sets the stage, explaining our backgrounds, how we got into this project, and what we see as our vision for the podcast.  You can listen to it here: Book of Nature 1: Opening the Book

Our second episode gets into some real meat about the differences between science and scientism: Book of Nature 2: Science vs. Scientism

So, please subscribe to us on iTunes, leave a review there if you are so inclined, and send feedback to  Or, if you prefer, head over to the show notes page and leave a comment there!

We plan to set up a Facebook page in the very near future, as well.

The good folks at The Christian Humanist have interviewed me again, this time about meteorology. View the show notes here, and find their feed on iTunes to listen to it! We had a far-ranging discussion about Aristotle, storms in the Bible, the long and cold winter in the eastern U.S., the Polar Vortex, and the supposed dichotomy between scientific and teleological/theological descriptions of weather events. These guys (all three are Ph.D. English professors) are great podcasters (is that a word?) and talk about a lot of interesting stuff that scientists like myself otherwise would rarely think about, and I highly recommend subscribing to their podcast on iTunes.

I had a great time in this interview, but I was a little nervous. This had the effect of causing me to lapse into inanity and general inarticulation from time to time. I obviously need more practice. Specifically, regarding the discussion of the dichotomy between scientific and theological descriptions, I didn’t feel that I explained my point of view very well. When describing the formation of hail from a scientific perspective, and then pointing out that this didn’t preclude the use of hail as punishment on God’s part, I didn’t mean to imply that God used hail for punishment all the time, or that bad weather in general is always punishment by God (I actually don’t think that this is the case). My point was rather that a thoroughgoing scientific explanation does not preclude such a possibility, as these different types of descriptions are looking at the same problem from a different angle. In my view, God is just as much responsible for the everyday natural happenings of the Universe–those very things that are amenable to scientific investigation–as he is for any sort of “true supernatural” miracle. Clearly there is lots more to say on this latter point, which brings me to my big announcement.

The Christian Humanists are enlarging their project, having recently added a new podcast to their repertoire, The Christian Feminist Podcast. Recently, they approached me and two other scientists who are long-time listeners if we would be interested in hosting our own separate podcast discussing all manner of issues of science as it pertains to the Christian faith. We all enthusiastically accepted. The podcast will be called “The Book of Nature“, and will debut sometime this fall. My hope is that being in verbal conversation with other Christian scientists (no, not those kind), will help crystallize my own thinking on this area of inquiry and my writing about such things on this blog. So, stay tuned! I’ll have more information as the debut date nears.

July 4th, 2012 will go down in history as one of the most significant days in science history, and certainly of the last few decades. A new particle consistent with the long-sought Higgs Boson has been discovered at the Large Hadron Collider. Leading up to this discovery, I had been keeping up with various particle physics blogs, and the rumors I were reading pointed to a major announcement. Excited, I stayed up late on the 3rd just to watch the live webcast from CERN. I have to say, watching the excitement in the eyes and voices of the physicists giving the announcement of a 5-sigma detection of this new particle sent shivers down my spine.

Almost 50 years ago, a theoretical physicist by the name of Peter Higgs (who is still alive and kicking and was present in person for the announcement!) wrote a paper (initially rejected, no less!) describing a mechanism that would allow fundamental particles to acquire mass by virtue of interacting with the “Higgs field”, a field analogous to the gravitational and electromagnetic field, that permeates all space. (This field was only later called the Higgs field; Peter Higgs was far too modest to name the field after himself!). In this landmark 1964 paper, he pointed out, almost as an afterthought, that this field would have its own particle, which came to be called the Higgs Boson (again, he didn’t name it such himself!). As an aside, Higgs was not the only player in this game, there were several other scientists who contributed to our theoretical understanding of the Higgs mechanism and Higgs Boson. Rather than going into that here, I recommend you peruse the relevant Wikipedia articles, which discuss these issues in depth.

To drastically oversimplify matters, this mechanism was incorporated into the so-called Standard Model of particle physics and quickly became an essential feature of it. Up until now, it was the last puzzle piece of the Standard Model that had not been put into place. Just like the electromagnetic field has its corresponding “quantum”, or particle, namely, the familiar photon, so the Higgs field has its corresponding particle, the Higgs Boson. Unlike the photon, however, which each of us detects everyday with one’s retinas (assuming one is not blind, of course!), the Higgs Boson has been devilishly difficult to pin down. For, while the Standard Model predicts that it should exist, it inconveniently doesn’t tell us what its mass is. And, the details of how it behaves and how easy it is to detect depend crucially on its mass. That’s one of the reasons it has been so hard to find. Another is the fact that, whatever mass it has, it’s unstable, and once formed, immediately (within an incredibly small fraction of a second) decays into other particles. Thus, it cannot be observed directly, but only by observing the products of its decay and working backwards to infer its existence, sort of like inferring the existence of a long-extinct dinosaur by digging up its fossilized footprints.

Why is this important? Up to now, particle physicists strongly suspected that something like a Higgs field exists in nature, because otherwise, it is very difficult to account for the fact that many observed particles (such as quarks, and the W and Z bosons that mediate the weak force) have a non-zero mass. Theoretical calculations of the behavior of these particles work best when such particles are massless. The fact that they aren’t (we wouldn’t be here if they were!) obviously required an explanation, which was the motivation for a series of papers introducing the Higgs field. As stated before, the Higgs Boson is a byproduct of this additional field (you can think of it as an “excitation” of the field, sort of like a breaking wave of water on the beach is an “excitation” of the ocean it comes from). And particle physicists have been searching for it ever since, because the only way they know of confirming the existence of the Higgs field is to detect the particle associated with it.

Now, it appears they’ve finally found it. The fact that such a particle was predicted almost 50 years ago, and experimentally confirmed just this past year is as much a testament to the power of scientific theory as one will ever come across. I for one am excited, and I’m not even a particle physicist! On the other hand, many theories that have been posited in the interim to attempt to explain the mass of fundamental particles apart from the Higgs field and the Higgs boson have now fallen flat on their face with this new discovery. Such is the nature of science: you never know when a theory is going to be dramatically upheld, or completely ruled out, by a new discovery. And we scientists wouldn’t (or shouldn’t!) have it any other way!

So, what’s next? Now that this new particle has been discovered, there are several things that particle physicists are going to follow up on. The first thing is to continue collecting more data. The particle was originally discovered by sifting through the debris of trillions of proton collisions to look for the unique signature it would produce above the noisy background of all the other particles produced; the problem is orders of magnitude worse than looking for a needle in a haystack. More collisions that produce the particle are needed to determine its properties. The Standard Model predicts that the particle should have very specific decay modes into other particles. For example, it should most often decay into a pair of bottom quarks, and much less often into a pair of gamma ray photons. If the decay rates of the Higgs Boson differ from the Standard Model, even a little bit, then it would be a signpost pointing to new physics (what particle physicists refer to as anything beyond what the Standard Model already accounts for) just around the corner.

Many physicists strongly suspect that the Standard Model is not the whole story, for various reasons. One is its inability to explain why the various particles have the particular masses they do, which seem to follow no discernable pattern. Another is why there are so many different kinds of particles to begin with. Another big one is the fact that it doesn’t account for gravity at all. But, to date there have been only a handful of observations that have been at odds with its predictions, which have been confirmed to astounding precision time and time again. The LHC was built in part to probe new frontiers that might tell us more about how the Universe works at its most fundamental level and give us clues to how we might solve some of the Standard Model’s problems. Now that we’ve found the last missing piece of the Standard Model, what this piece tells us could be the bridge to a fundamental new understanding of the physical Universe, and that’s something to get excited about!

As is often the case when I see an either-or question like the one in the title of this post, my knee-jerk reaction is to say, “I don’t know, maybe both?”. (I tend to be very suspicious of dichotomies, suspecting that many more are actually false than is commonly assumed.) In this case, after further reflection, I would definitely say both.

The folks over at The Christian Humanist have put together a really nice podcast all about epistemology. I highly recommend you head over to their site (also linked in the blogroll on the left), subscribe to their podcast feed, and give it a listen. In one part of their podcast, they discuss the relationship of epistemology to modern science, specifically by arguing that modern science actually contains elements of both a “rationalistic” epistemology, and an “empiricist” epistemology, even though it is commonly assumed to be largely described by the latter.

I have to agree, but first I need to explain what is meant by the terms “rationalism” and “empiricism” in this context. Now, I’m certainly no expert here, but from what I’ve been lead to understand, rationalism is a theory of knowledge that tends to emphasize the faculties of pure reason, although the Wikipedia article linked to above appears to define this as “idealism”. Perhaps someone who knows more about these distinctions can chime in here. Rationalism, thus defined, would be concerned in a scientific context with the building of models and theories, logical and mathematical, for which to make sense of the data of science and to make predictions about what new observations and experiments might show. On the flip side of this is empiricism, which is a theory of knowledge that emphasizes observational data, gathered by our senses, and by extension, our scientific instruments and observations and experiments utilizing those instruments.

The question in my mind is, which one of these epistemologies, if either, is primary in modern science? I myself have tended to lean toward an empirical view of things as having the final say in matters of science, and I think many (dare I say, most?) scientists would agree with me. What I mean is, that at the end of the day, all of our rationalizing–that is, our theories and models–can be overturned by new observations and experiments. On the other hand, I also think that theories in science are absolutely indispensable for at least a few reasons: 1) They help us make sense out of patterns we see in nature, which is what gives form to science and keeps it from being a mere collection of facts, 2) they make predictions about what new phenomena we might uncover once we have the technological capability of doing so, and theories are thus at least in part measured by how successful their predictions are, and 3), they guide the development of new ways of observing and experimenting to begin with. In this way, theory feeds back on experiment, which in turn tells us how well our theories are doing. So, with this way of looking at things, one can argue that both theories of knowledge are needed in the modern scientific enterprise. I might also point out that this is one of the areas where philosophy can really help us scientists think more clearly about what, in fact, we mean when we talk about gaining scientific knowledge, and how we come about that knowledge.

What do you think?

P.S., I also made a comment on the blog summary of the podcast that gave some specific contemporary examples of the interplay of theory and observation/experiment, if anyone is interested.

My area of expertise in science, namely the field of Meteorology, is a rather specialized field. It can be viewed as a subset of fluid mechanics, which itself is a subset of classical (or Newtonian) mechanics (or physics). In other words, a meteorologist is a specialized classical physicist, who barely rubs shoulders with that other realm of physics: quantum and particle physics. Indeed, to be perfectly honest, quantum physics is more general, but just because one is a quantum physicist doesn’t mean that one automatically understands all the vagaries of classical physics. What I mean is, classical physics is itself a subset of quantum physics, in that it is an approximation to quantum physics on macroscopic scales, that is the familiar scales of everyday life. But, it is far from obvious how the myriad interactions between particles and forces result in the overwhelming complexity of physical phenomena on macroscopic scales. (It is sometimes said that macroscopic physics “emerges” out of quantum physics). The scales are just so different that it is, at least at the present time, practically (if not theoretically) impossible to fully understand the deep connections between scales, even though we know they are there. It so happens that classical mechanics is an excellent approximation to quantum mechanics (and is rather easier to handle) at macroscopic scales, which is why the exploration of classical physics, without recourse to quantum effects, is still a fruitful scientific enterprise and is likely to be for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, I have always been interested in quantum and particle physics out of pure scientific curiosity, and have always meant to educate myself on it as a side pursuit. I just needed a catalyst. A colleague of mine sent me an email a few months ago regarding a potential discovery of a new particle at the Tevatron particle accelerator at Fermilab. I looked into it, and before I knew it, I was immersed in a Wikipedia link-fest, learning about the fascinating world of particle physics. I stumbled upon several blogs maintained by both experimental and theoretical particle physicists, and frustrated that I didn’t understand the jargon and the various graphical plots they were discussing, I decided to pick up an introductory book on particle physics.

I learned about the elegant beauty of the so-called “Standard Model” of particle physics (see here), how much of it is based on rather simple physical principles which collectively are called “symmetries” of nature, and how the different particles interact with each other through the four fundamental forces of the natural world that have so far been discovered: electromagnetism, gravity, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. I learned about unsolved puzzles, such as why the photon, the particle that “carries” the electromagnetic force, has no mass, but the W and Z bosons, the particles that “carry” the weak nuclear force, are quite massive.

Then I learned more about the Higgs boson, that one missing piece of the Standard Model, the one that would explain why all the other particles have the masses they do (or, in the case of the photon, why they do not). All other particles that are predicted by the Standard Model have been discovered just as it predicted they should be, except for the Higgs boson (see here). Without getting into too much detail, this particle interacts with it’s own corresponding “field”, the so-called Higgs field, and with all the other particles in the Standard Model, and in doing so, “endows” them with the masses they have. As we speak, there is an ongoing effort at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe to find the Higgs boson, for while the Standard Model predicts that it should exist, it doesn’t tell us what mass it has. So far, the search has been able to rule out the Higgs boson over a wide range of masses, and it is running out of places to hide, so to speak. If the Higgs boson is *not* found, or if it is found within a particular range of masses, it would mean that the Standard Model of particle physics is not the whole story, and that there is far more to discover about the inner workings of nature. Even if it is found just like the Standard Model says it should be, there is still much more work to do, and there are other areas of physics where we still have many mysteries to solve.

This particle has been dubbed the “God Particle” by the media, probably in no small part due to its elusive status, and yet its central importance to at least one unsolved question in physics, namely, why do the different particles have the masses they do? Why are some more massive than others? For example, the proton is much more massive than its oppositely charged counterpart, the electron. Why do some particles have no mass at all (like the photon)? Why do any of them have any mass at all? What *is* the nature of mass anyway? You get the idea. It’s an important particle. While the name “God Particle” sounds provocative and mysterious, I don’t think the motivation behind naming it that was anything but flippant.

As far as subatomic particles in general are concerned, I think they are all fascinating and display a profound beauty and elegance, and even simplicity (in a sense), in their interactions (as do the mathematical equations that describe them). To me, this underlying symmetry and order is suggestive of a deeper beauty, elegance, and even simplicity (again, in a sense) in the God behind them. So, I propose that they should all be called “God Particles”.

“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.” ? — Carl Sagan

Sagan was one of my favorite public figures when I was younger.  I remember watching his science TV episodes on PBS with rapt attention.  In particular, I loved the scene where he took an apple and cut it in half to show how thin the skin really was, and then compared that to the thickness of Earth’s crust.  I was also entranced by his vision of what life in the atmosphere of Jupiter might look like (big floating gas bags, with no solid surface to ever rest on).

I’ll be honest, I miss Carl Sagan.  He was one of the best science communicators of the modern age, and while he often had rather harsh criticisms of religious beliefs and institutions, some of which I think were justified, others not so much, he did so in a mostly civil and respectful manner.  Contrast this with the angry, spiteful, ugly, and sometimes hate-filled rhetoric of certain prominent scientific atheists today.

Speaking of atheists, I recognize that Sagan could be considered an atheist of sorts (he himself shirked the label, and called himself an agnostic), and I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon among many of my atheist friends: like Sagan, they share an almost transcendent sense of awe and wonder of the natural world that amounts to, for all practical purposes, a religious one.  I find that as I grow as a scientist, I increasingly share this impulse, but from the perspective of a Christian theist.  It’s this remarkable point of confluence that I wish to elaborate on in this post.

I chose the above quote because I think it highlights one of the biggest points of disconnect that many theists have with the natural world (and thus that which falls under the purview of science).  The thing that sticks out at me most is that Sagan, an avowed nontheist, in my view has captured a profound truth about God that escapes too many Christians (not to mention other theists) today.  Namely, that he cannot be limited, boxed in, or ever completely fathomed by anything we think about him, or any theology we come up with.  (Note, this does not mean that we cannot know *anything* about God, or that there are no proper responses to God, but that’s for another post).  One needn’t go far to find Scriptural support for this: consider Isaiah 55:9 as a starting point.  The Psalmist, I think, understood that the unbelievable grandeur of the natural world pointed in turn to the ineffable grandeur of the Creator: see Psalm 8:3-4.  As far as I’m concerned, the new vistas we are opening up in science, in which so many wonders are being uncovered day by day, is about as powerful a testimony as I can think of for a faith in an even more awesome Creator God.

Now, before I give Sagan too much credit, I want to point out that I actually disagree with his assessment of modern religion, particularly when it comes to Christianity.  Christianity, at various times and places through the ages, has in fact looked at science in exactly the manner that Sagan laments that it hasn’t.  One only needs to look at any list of historic figures in science, and one will find numerous devout Christians among them: Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, Blaise Pascal, and Michael Faraday are only a few that come immediately to mind.  These and other figures, to varying degrees, all shared the conviction that God’s nature was reflected in the wonders of the natural world, and indeed, that scientific discovery was in a very real sense, a way of revealing an even grander God than the prophets revealed, to paraphrase Sagan.

Unfortunately, these times, places, and people are fewer and farther between these days.  I will elaborate on this state of affairs in future posts, but for now, suffice it to say that I think that many modern Western Christians (of whom I am naturally most familiar with, being one myself) are at the very least missing a huge opportunity to grow deeper in their knowledge and relationship with God by meditating on the wonders of nature as revealed by science, and at worst, are actively spurning such endeavors.  Let me be clear, not everyone has to be a scientist; not everyone is called by God to serve him in such a regard.  But all members of the body of Christ should rejoice together when one part rejoices, and I’d like to see a bit more of that when it comes to the “science parts”.  Some of the reason for this, I believe, is a latent Gnosticism that the Church has seemingly never shaken completely in its 2000 years of existence, but I digress.

I’ll be frank: I have become increasingly convinced that in this particular area many atheists or other nontheists (at least those of the scientific persuasion, again of whom I am most familiar) actually have a better visceral understanding of the immanence of God in Creation than many theists, because of their willingness to be open to what our ever-increasing knowledge of nature has to offer.

For my part, when I stumble across something new during the course of my own research, I sometimes am overcome with a sense of awe.  Here I am, privileged to see something that perhaps no one else has noticed before, and yet, I get the feeling that it was here all along, and I just happened across it.  I indeed imagine that I feel like Johannes Kepler when he declared that he was merely “thinking God’s thought’s after him”.

And then I imagine I perceive a voice, saying “There’s more where that came from.  Keep going, keep looking, keep digging!”

NOMA or not?

It’s been a few years since I’ve read Stephen Jay Gould’s “Rocks of Ages”, but ever since then, the underlying premise of the book has stuck with me.  By “stuck with me”, I mean more in the manner of a popcorn kernel that gets stuck in your teeth and refuses to be dislodged, rather than in the manner of how a memorable vacation or good movie gets stuck in your mind, if you catch my drift.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, or even that I think that Gould was completely off base with his idea of NOMA.  For those that might be unfamiliar, NOMA stands for “Non-Overlapping MAgisteria”, which in turn refers to the idea that the intellectual realms of religion on one hand, and science, on the other, are either in fact, or ought to be in principle, completely separate without any sort of overlap in their respective spheres of influence.  At the same time, however, they are each presumably legitimate pursuits of knowledge in their own respective spheres of influence. Sounds reasonable — on the face of it at least — right?

The problem is, during my reading of Gould’s book where he lays out this premise of NOMA, it became clear (to me at least) that, in fact, Gould had little sympathy for the idea of religion as being anywhere near the same level as science on the scale of intellectual legitimacy.  In brief, it almost seemed to me that he came up with the idea of NOMA as a means to “throw a bone” to theologians and other religious thinkers while still maintaining his view of the modern supremacy of science as the ultimate expression of human intellect.  What I mean is that Gould came at the problem with the idea that science was the de facto standard for getting at “truth” and was trying to see if there was still a way that religion could fit in to the picture, given its obvious importance in human history and current state.  It never seemed to occur to him that his whole starting point might be a little off balance, and in this way, he merely came across as condescending toward those who didn’t share his fundamental epistemology.

This starting point, it seems to me, is this implicit assumption that the explanations for reality alternately proffered by science and religion are part of a zero-sum game: that is, this idea there can be only one explanation for any given phenomenon.  On this view, if science comes along and explains something in physical terms that used to be explained by some sort of appeal to supernatural entities, then that is an example of science gaining ground on religion.  Looked at this way, it seems that religion has been losing ground for quite some time.

But not so fast.  While it is certainly true that different explanations for a given phenomenon can compete with each other, it’s not obvious that they logically are required to.  I’m perfectly fine with the idea that religion attempts to focus on the “why” questions for phenomena, or questions of purpose, while science mainly focuses on the “what” and “how” questions, as a basic starting point for trying to find demarcations between science and religion.  But it seems to me that NOMA takes this to extremes when it declares that there can be in fact no overlap.  As a quick aside, many atheists also reject NOMA, but they do so from the standpoint that religion is not a legitimate means to knowledge or truth, and thus it doesn’t even have a “magisterium” to begin with.  While I stand with these atheists in rejecting NOMA, my reasons for doing so are quite different.

As an example of what I mean, science surely has something to say about what it means to be human, by revealing our evolutionary history, and the biological underpinnings of any number of human behaviors.  At the same time, to take an example from Christian theism, religion may talk about humans being made “in the image of God”.  My point is, who’s to say that the biological explanations for our behaviors, our intelligence, and so on aren’t in fact part of this “image of God”.  In such a way, we see that there could be layered explanations for phenomena, instead competing ones, coming from science and religion.  I’m not trying here to argue necessarily for the legitimacy of particular religious explanations, but rather to argue that at least some of them can and do overlap with scientific ones, without any obvious conflict.  But, if this is true, NOMA fails almost by definition.

I doubtless will have more to say about this in future posts, but hopefully this will get things started.

Recently, I had the pleasure of being a guest on an old friend’s podcast, The Christian Humanist Podcast.  Nathan and I went to high school together, and were part of the same church, and in particular, the church’s high school youth group.  He went on to pursue English literature in college, while I went on to study the weather.  Many years later, I discovered his blog while searching for Christian resources on the Internet, and we  reconnected through there.

The podcast discussed science and its relationship to Christian inquiry.  The hosts of the Christian Humanists are students of philosophy and the humanities, and as such I was very interested to hear their perspective on that other great human intellectual pursuit–Science.  I thought we had a great conversation, and I learned a great deal (which I will likely discuss in future posts), but wished we could have had more time to pursue some of the issues that came up in our discussion.  This post is an attempt to elaborate on one of them, namely the idea that science is progressive.

First I want to lay some background by discussing what the changeable nature of science means.  One common thread I’ve noticed amongst non-scientists is a conception that science is always in a state of flux.  What is true one minute may be shown to be false the next.  While this is certainly true, there is another very important aspect to consider.  Namely, science always builds on what came before.  There is always a solid bedrock of time-tested knowledge on which to fall back on.  As Newton famously said, “If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  In this regard, it is quite similar to other intellectual fields such as philosophy or theology.  Philosophers, theologians, and scientists alike never operate in a vacuum (unless they are literally studying the vacuum, of course!).  They always at least consider what other philosophers and theologians have said, and test their ideas in relation to them.  This is not to say that they don’t question fundamental assumptions, only that proper care is taken in doing so.

In regards to science, there is a solid bedrock of core ideas, theories, experimental findings, etc., that have all withstood the test of time and repeated experimentation, while out on the edges are the newest crop of scientists who are pushing the envelope, testing new ideas, re-examining old ones in the light of new data, and generally trying to learn more about the natural world.  Out on the fringe, science is indeed in a state of constant flux, and this is a good thing, because it is the only way science can ever progress.  More about this in a moment.  Often the public only sees what is reported through the media, of this-or-that study which overturns this-or-that idea, or contradicts this other contemporary study, and so on.  That is, they only see what is happening on the front lines, and often are unaware of the bedrock.  Or, rather, the bedrock has become so ingrained in common knowledge that it is not even recognized in everyday life as being “science”.  A good example of this is the spheroidal nature of the earth, which (nearly) everyone takes for granted today but was once a far from settled scientific issue.

Its easy to see how folks may get confused and wonder how anyone can trust anything a scientist says at any given moment.  The truth of the matter is, not all science is created equal: some theories are very robust, by which I mainly mean well-attested to by the evidence, while others are far less so.  A contemporary example of the former would be Quantum Theory, while of the latter would be any of the myriad variations of String Theory.  Nevertheless, any theory, no matter how well established up to the present time, is always in danger of being overturned by new data–although more likely, it will not be completely overturned as much as being superseded by a new, more complete theory.  On the flip side, just because a theory doesn’t have a lot of evidence going for it at the present time doesn’t mean it is not a good one that deserves study.  These are two considerations that, in my opinion, make science so exciting to begin with.

So what does progress in science look like in practice?  Most of the time, progress is slow, with small discoveries here and there serving as stepping stones on a more-or-less gentle slope which represents progress within a given theory or paradigm.  A contemporary example would be the continued efforts to understand and refine the Standard Model theory of particle physics–witness the efforts of the teams at the Large Hadron Collider.

Then, every once in a while, a great leap forward is taken.  A classic (perhaps even the archetypal) example of this is Einstein’s two theories of relativity, which together supplanted the reigning paradigm of Newtonian mechanics, almost overnight.  I won’t get into the details of the theories here, but the key point I want to make is that Einstein didn’t as much show that Newton was wrong as he was incomplete. It turns out that Newton’s laws work perfectly fine for everyday circumstances, as long as the local gravitational field doesn’t get too strong or speeds of objects don’t get too close to the speed of light.  Einstein’s theories, however, were able to explain observations of phenomena like the precession of Mercury’s orbit around the Sun which Newton’s Laws utterly failed to do.  (Einstein did so in terms of the geometric warping of spacetime, rather than the unexplained “action at a distance” that Newton’s Law of Gravity relied upon).  Simultaneously, Einstein’s theories explained everything that Newton’s Laws already explained.  In other words, Newton’s Laws are a special, limiting case of Einstein’s theories.  Most assuredly the reason Newton held sway for so long was both because his laws were a very good approximation to relativity, and because our technological ability to observe phenomena that would conceivably violate Newtonian mechanics was limited until near the time of Einstein.  For what its worth, Newtonian mechanics (or classical mechanics as it is often called) is still used successfully by many modern sciences, including my own field of Meteorology, because many fields of science derived from physics don’t have to worry about strong gravitational fields or motions near the speed of light.  (When we discover tornadoes that have winds near the speed of light, I’ll retract my claim!) So, in brief, Einstein built upon Newton, and then leaped beyond him, and his theories are held as the gold standard today not because they are more interesting aesthetically (although they may be that) or that a majority of scientists decided they liked them more, but because they explain more of the actual empirical observations and experimental data that we have access to than Newtons laws do.  I have little doubt that in the future we will find more and more observational “anomalies” that demand an explanation beyond Einstein (there are already some tantalizing hints!), and science will be poised to take another leap forward.  And that’s what I mean by the progressive nature of science.