The charge leveled against metrication as a “Stalinist” imposition by the scientific establishment on the public is easily dismissed. It is worth stepping back for a moment and understanding how modern science has chosen its units of measurement. There are seven basic units in the so-called International System, known in scientific circles by its French acronym SI. These are the metre, kilogram, second, ampere, kelvin, candela and mole. They measure, respectively, length, mass, time, electric current, temperature, luminous intensity and amount of substance in terms of its atomic weight. Then there are the secondary units derived from these and also forming part of the SI, such as volt to measure voltage, newton (force), joule (energy), watt (power) and so on. The units may be combined to form compound units, such as metre per second to measure speed or newton-metre to measure torque.
The SI units have the huge advantage of mutual consistency and compatibility within all the mathematical formulas in all the sciences, and also have unambiguously assigned names. To take a simple example, consider the formula E = (1/2)[mv.sup.2], expressing the kinetic energy E of a mass m moving at a speed v. To get the kinetic energy, you square the speed, multiply it by the mass, and halve the resulting product. If m is measured in kilograms and v in metres per second, then E is automatically the correct number of joules. Thus a 1000 kg car moving at 20 metres per second (about 72 kmh) has a kinetic energy of about 200,000 joules.
Now, for contrast, consider the same calculation in the older “foot-pound-second” (or “British”) system of measurement. The mass would be measured in pounds and the speed in feet per second. The energy would then be given in the awkward units called foot-poundals, and to make matters worse, was often converted to another unit called foot-pounds-weight. A “pound-weight” was the force exerted by the earth’s gravity on a mass of one pound, and a pound-weight was roughly 32 poundals. Why should the earth’s gravity have anything to do with the formula E = (1/2)[mv.sup.2], which holds true on the moon, for example, or in outer space? In fact the formula has nothing to do with it, but confusingly this older system of measurement seemed to imply some connection between kinetic energy and gravity. Moreover, in this older system there was no greater freedom to choose one’s units to conform to some particular scale of immediate convenience than exists in the present SI. Thus, in the kinetic energy example, an incorrect answer would be obtained if the speed were measured not in feet per second but in miles per hour, furlongs per fortnight or whatever, or if the mass Was that of a hundred-ton aircraft and entered into the formula as “100″. The older system is in fact more accurately referred to in the plural — there were, for historical reasons, many old systems with, understandably, little in the way of mutual consistency.
I CAN VOUCH PERSONALLY for the great simplification afforded by the SI. If this simplification is what Padden refers to as “window-dressing”, he is seriously deluded. As a high-school physics student in the fifties I remember having to use conversion factors to go from calories per gram to British Thermal Units per pound, and vice versa. In studying electricity and magnetism, there was a constant risk of muddling electrostatic, electromagnetic and what were then known as the “practical electrical units”, with various conversion factors from one set to another that depended on the physical quantity in question — electric current, voltage, magnetic strength or whatever. So a student of physics was obliged to divert a substantial part of his effort into developing what amounted to a meretricious linguistic agility, having little to do with achieving a good grasp of physics.
When very large or very small quantities are measured, a wide range of prefixes are available for attaching to the basic SI units. Thus from metre one can go down to millimetre, micrometre (one-millionth of a metre), nanometre (one-billionth), and up to a kilometre. The kilojoule (1000 joules) is of course now a familiar term in dietary contexts, as megajoule (one million joules) is on our gas-heating bills. (Electricity bills often state consumption in kilowatt-hours, but a kilowatt-hour is exactly 3.6 megajoules.) Padden’s comment that metre is “totally inadequate to cope with all situations in which length is measured” is incorrect; one could in fact say the same of foot or inch — how many inches long is a human blood cell?
In both the teaching and practice of science, the SI is much better than any preceding system of units. There is no evidence that metrication, the public face of the SI, has ever been more than a very minor nuisance to the general public. Since the teaching and practice of science entail as a natural consequence the delivery of its fruits to the public — in one word, technology — it would make no sense to use the SI in the former case but more traditional units in the latter. Why should (for example) research into the efficient generation and distribution of electricity be conducted using the SI, but our electricity bills state consumption in British Thermal Units?
One could point to many cases where the public accepted without uproar the changes from traditional to metric units that occurred in the past few decades. When weather forecasts in Australia started quoting temperatures in degrees Celsius rather than Fahrenheit, there was admittedly a period of adjustment, but we very quickly learned to recognise that, for example, 18 [degrees] C was cool and 28 [degrees] C very warm. Similarly for vehicle speeds: all good drivers recognise 40 kmh as a low speed mandatory in school zones and the like.
So far from being a “Stalinist” imposition on the public, metrication always willingly takes a back seat during special events with their own traditional ways of measurement; thus wind and yachting speeds are reported in knots during the Sydney-Hobart race and nobody objects. In other contexts, distances are still often given in miles rather than kilometres, and there is no danger that this older measure of large distances will be forgotten. These and similar examples amount to a demonstration of respect for the public which is uncharacteristic of totalitarian regimes. There is even evidence that if a metric unit should coincide, fortuitously, with a traditional unit, then a similar name is given to the metric unit: 1000 kilograms is called a tonne because it differs by less than 2 per cent from the traditional ton.
HAVING AIMED at metrication — without, I assert, leaving a single dent — Padden next broadens his target to include the whole of modern science. He seeks to persuade us that corruption in the medieval church has its present-day analogue in pop science, defence funding and the publish-or-perish syndrome. Of this diabolical trio, the first is best represented by such outstanding popularisers as the late Jacob Bronowski and Isaac Asimov, and more recently by such expert practitioners and interpreters as Paul Davies, John Gribbin, Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, to name only a very few, and the pejorative term “pop science” does not do justice to their contributions. The second item, defence funding, may well have inflated some areas of research at the expense of others, but if it has played any part in the warless abolition of the Soviet Union I have no great quarrel with it. Publish-or-perish can be found anywhere in the universities or other research bodies and is by no means restricted to science.
Comparing modern science with the medieval church will, however, fail for a deeper reason: science works. The particular areas of intensive research may change from time to time, depending on the public interest as perceived by money-granting politicians or on the changing tastes of new generations of scientists or on new and exciting advances in a particular field. But the rules of scientific research will not change: new results and new theories must be tested against experiment, repeatedly so by different teams, and are accepted as “true” only provisionally and after many attempts to falsify or disprove them. A new theory is not regarded as meaningful unless it predicts further testable results. This objectivity and predictive power at the heart of science are the reason that Padden’s calls for a “more heterogeneous, more democratic, richer science” are no more intelligible than the proclamations one reads from some feminist writers that the “scientific paradigm” will change for the better when more women practise science.
What we know about nature is, therefore, hard-won knowledge. That this is “true” knowledge in the sense that, for example, astrology is not, was proven when (to take just two examples from a vast number of possible examples) transistors replaced vacuum-tubes (so eventually making possible very fast and small computers), or when lasers became routinely used in eyesight-saving surgery. Both these technologies depend on hard-won understanding of quantum mechanics and solid-state physics.
Some years ago a luminous event occurred in the public presentation of science. It followed the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in January 1986 barely more than a minute after lift-off, killing all seven of the crew. The Reagan administration appointed an investigatory commission which included the Nobel laureate in physics Richard Feynman. The commission’s attention soon focused on the rubber O-rings which were used to seal the joints holding together the several sections of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters and whose resilience was critically important.
At ordinary room temperatures rubber is indeed resilient — its best-known attribute. However, if cooled sufficiently, rubber hardens and the O-rings would cease to function as seals, allowing in the case of the shuttle the lethally dangerous escape of hot gases. The weather had been very cold at the time of lift-off, with ice forming on the launching pad.
The Radiation Imaging Group at the University of Surrey is one of the leading European academic centers for radiation detector development. Its research is focused on the development of new sensors and systems for radiation imaging. The group’s goals are primarily to image the growth and development of plant seeds in order to understand and breed newer and better plants for use in developing countries. Its research has far-reaching implications for industries as varied as forestry, ecology, entomology, agronomy, environmental science, pharmaceuticals, and process control engineering.
“The ability to non-destructively image a cross-section through a sample is a very powerful technique” said Dr. Paul Jenneson, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Radiation Imaging Group. “The potential users for such a system are too numerous to mention individually.”
The Radiation Imaging Group was also the first organization to visualize the germination of a wheat seed in its native ferrous soil. “We don’t want to interfere with the environment, and we want to study the plants over a period of time to see how they develop. The plants, therefore, need to be imaged in their iron-rich soil environment, which renders Magnetic Resonance Imaging ineffective” stated Dr. Jenneson. “In addition, any invasive tactic, even with the most delicate preparation or cutting methods, can cause the specimen structure to change dramatically, thereby degrading research efforts. Thus, we selected to use x-ray micro-tomography as our method of study.”
For the micro-tomography research, the group designed and built a low-dose hardware system. “We believe our system to be the most carefully optimized micro-tomography system for low radiation dose imaging in the world,” asserted Dr. Jenneson. The system is built of commercially available units but the combination and arrangement are unique. The system includes a Hamamatsu x-ray image intensifier as a detector, and an Oxford Instruments x-ray tube as an x-ray source. The motion needed to do tomography is provided by Time & Precision stepper motors and controls.
“For our purposes, the projection, or radiograph, images are reconstructed into cross-section images using a filtered back-projection routine,” explained Dr. Jenneson. “We then needed something that would allow us to process and visualize the final three-dimensional data set, which is basically a stack of cross-section images, and display them in a meaningful way on a 2-D VDU display. We also wanted it to be accessible on Windows NT, Unix and Linux systems.”
The group considered several software packages before selecting IDL from Research Systems. Inc. “IDL allows us to do many terrific things with our data,” said Dr. Jenneson. “Prior to using IDL, the only way to view the tomographic data was with 8-bit gray scale two-dimensional cross-sectional images. IDL has been enormously helpful to us in that regard. Our data are processed using routines such as LABEL_2D and HISTOGRAM. The CONGRID interpolation provides a very fast cubic-interpolation routine, which we use during tomographic acquisition. We also use the three-dimensional visualization routines in `Slicer3,’ and frequently create iso-surfaces in IDL to visualize the three-dimensional data sets.”
“We also love how quickly and easily we can create new routines utilizing the existing library of routines with the simple syntax provided in the IDLDE. The help is the best source of help I have come across for any program,” said Dr. Jenneson.
The data sets are currently 256 x 256 x 256 cubes of double-precision data. “We have the hardware capability of obtaining 2048 x 2048 x 2048 cubes of data,” explained Dr. Jenneson, “but the data sets are limited in size by CPU and memory constraints.” Data can be output as either image files, such as GIF, JPEG or TIFF, or as a movies in MPEG format.
Because most users of the application are competent Windows users, but are not programmers, the group needed to build a GUI front-end to the application. “We used IDL’s ActiveX control, in combination with Microsoft Visual Basic, to develop a friendly graphical user interface. The use of Visual Basic allows us to embed other commercial ActiveX components into the same program, which keeps us flexible. The open architecture also allows us to seamlessly integrate the tomographic hardware control with the powerful image processing routines provided by IDL.”
Although the Radiation Imaging Group’s research uses x-ray micro-tomography to visualize the growth of plant roots, the system the members have developed can be used for a number of different non-destructive cross-sectional imaging challenges. “As well as being able to image developing plants, the micro-tomography system can be used in a number of other studies,” continued Dr. Jenneson. “For example, the study of small invertebrates has become a bit of a showcase for demonstrating the spatial resolution obtainable with x-ray micro-tomography. The structure of such creatures is on a ideal scale to demonstrate the benefits of the technology.
“Micro-tomography can also be used for process control applications in the food and pharmaceutical industries, where the nondestructive imaging of a product on the 100 micrometer scale can yield some very valuable information. For example, one can study a product’s internal structure to better understand how a sample is packing or settling in a container. In the pharmaceutical industry, the production of capsular pills, which are comprised of a dissolvable outer case containing a powder pharmaceutical, can be monitored to ensure the capsule actually contains the proper amount of powder. The capsule system can also be studied over time to assess the `packing’ and any degradation in the powder,” he said.
The Radiation Imaging Group hopes that the x-ray micro-tomography system and accompanying research will be used by soil scientists and agronomists to develop more advanced crops and create a reference database of current plant root systems. “We have high hopes for this type of system; the ability to non-destructively section, slice, visualize and analyze 3-D data on such a minute scale opens up new opportunities for many industries and areas of study. And IDL has played a very significant role in that progress,” concluded Dr. Jenneson.
The development of chromatographic methods requires definition of the appropriate conditions by which a particular separation can be executed. The resulting method will include details regarding the column type, the solvents, the solvent gradient, buffers and so on. Generally, at least a hard copy of the chromatogram will be filed with the method with each peak in the chromatogram annotated with a textual identifier of the related chemical structure or, alternatively, with a hand-drawn or copy-and-pasted structure. This approach to the management of method details is incomplete and hardly sufficient in a global corporate environment where analytical details need to be exchanged between different laboratories. Similarly, even though millions of dollars are invested annually in the installation and maintenance of molecular structure databases, there have been few attempts to provide links between the thousands of chromatograms generated on an annual basis with the chemical structures identified within associated analytical laboratories. As a result, even though an abundance of information exists in regards to appropriate separations and methods related to particular classes of chemical structures, little of this is easily accessible and therefore of little use for future method development.
While attempts have been made to retrieve data based on text descriptions of chemical structures, this is a dangerous practice. Standardized naming conventions exist, but may prove difficult to apply accurately. This is further complicated by the presence of IUPAC and CAS naming conventions, as well as the IUPAC nomenclature’s acceptance of semi-common names such as steroid derivatives. Based on this, it is quite possible that a search for a correctly entered IUPAC name will fail to retrieve a required entry. Searches for functionality are much more problematic. Retrieval can be attempted using a text-string method. In practice, the huge number of potential strings associated to one fragment of a structure make this method practically unusable. Except for the simplest searches, only utilizing structures enables the user to find entries based on functionality.
Chromatographers, like spectroscopists, utilize their technology both to separate and to identify chemical structures. It is common in today’s analytical environments to find teams composed of people with both skillsets to generate optimal separation and analysis solutions. Spectroscopists assign their spectra in relation to chemical structures using parent ion mass analysis or fragmentation analysis in mass spectrometry, nucleus to peak assignments in NMR and vibrational bands to IR peaks. Commonly, spectroscopists have utilized the standard filing system of drawers full of spectra with an association of the file number with some textual identifier in order to locate the detailed knowledge extracted from the spectra at a later date. The general level of spectral management has been limited to handwritten notes in notebooks or sometimes text-searchable databases pointing to associated spectra. It is only during recent years that tools have become available to allow spectra to be databased in electronic format with associated chemical structures. In this manner the spectroscopist has inherited the opportunity to search the database for related structures or substructures, or spectral features when performing fresh analyses. This approach allows the generation of a legacy database of multiple spectroscopy data thereby building a foundation for future analyses. The value residing in such tools is the time-savings that result for the analysis of related chemicals and the exchange of information between different analytical laboratories within the same company. In theory, such an approach should not be isolated to spectroscopists.
For chromatography, tools now exist to allow the similar integration of chromatographic peaks and chemical structures. The software application described here is ACD/ChromManager. Unlike in spectroscopy, a single peak in the chromatogram is associated with a single chemical structure, or multiple if species coelute.
The development of a toolkit to allow the association of chemical structures with a chromatogram and ultimately databasing of the resulting information requires a number of specific features. In particular, processing of an experimental chromatogram will require the standard tools for peak picking, noise removal, baseline correction, smoothing and peak integration, as well as advanced tools such as deconvolution. Since there are many chromatography hardware system vendors, the ability to read in raw formats or standard ASCII or AIA is necessary to allow laboratories with non-homogeneous environments to database their information in a consistent manner.
Afterwards, the chromatogram should be available for printing, as well as for transfer to other tools for reporting (using standard word processors and graphics programs). Object linking and embedding has become a standard technology for passing objects between programs. This has been implemented to full effect in ChromManager, which allows direct integration with Word, Powerpoint and other applications. In order to attach chemical structures to the chromatography report, the CDS should be integrated with a chemical structure drawing system. For the system described here, ACD/ChemSketch, an application for generating molecular structures, is directly integrated. This application also allows the import of standard file formats such as Molfile from other applications, again supporting non-homogeneous software environments. Following the processing of the chromatogram, a peak is selected and one or more structures are directly associated. Continuing this process across the whole chromatogram, structures are attached one by one to appropriate peaks, integrating chemical connectivity. An example screen of the resulting file is shown in Fig. 2. Moving the cursor across each chromatographic peak will show each associated structure(s).
The resulting chromatogram with associated chemical structures carries valuable information for future applications. Such resulting files can be stored onto a centralized server and can become a powerful means for dissemination of the chromatogram-structure connectivity information. For example, a copy of ACD/ChromProcessor (ChromManager without the databasing capability) can be distributed to each chemist’s or chromatographer’s desktop with access to the centralized server where textual methods and associated chromatogram-structure (ESP) files reside. This general approach can be expanded to a World Wide Web-intranet approach, whereby the methods are posted as individual HTML pages with hyperlinked ESP files. When the methods are searched textually, the associated ESP file can be downloaded for viewing in the ChromProcessor helper application. A series of such information-rich chromatograms forms a valuable basis for method development and rapid chromatographic condition identification. These approaches, though valuable, have the constraints associated with most CDS systems: searches are primarily text based.
However, the ACD/ChromManager application allows each chromatogram to be databased with associated chemical structures, thereby offering significantly enhanced capabilities over the common file systems used today in many laboratories. Prior to databasing of the chromatogram users can edit and update the sample data, instrumental data, detector data, elution data and column parameters.
The capabilities of database technology enhance searching capability over the standard filing cabinet system or text based databasing system. It is possible to search the resulting databases by structure, substructure, formula, molecular weight, chromatographic parameters or user data. User data includes the creation of up to 16,000 user-definable database fields with particular field labels such as example submitter, project name, and type of analysis–all of which become searchable fields. Multiple databases can be searched at one time, allowing different databases to be constructed according to column, project name, individual user, and other parameters. These multiple databases can also be distributed across different departments, divisions or even an entire corporation, simply by using the ability to point to databases located on mapped network drives.
Highly trained scientists leave the country and seek employment abroad. Many of the younger generation seek work in fields where they can make a living but do not follow their training in science or technology. For a traditionally static society, the mobility of this young and promising generation is high. The older generation, well established in the former system, has great difficulty adapting to the new realities of life. In fact, a whole generation, the lost generation of this great period of social upheaval, is now in a very difficult state. It may gradually be displaced by the younger and more active modern generation, who are the real hope for our future.
In the organization of science, the traditional division between science and teaching has become a major issue. The government has stated that the cooperation of science and teaching should be pursued, but unfortunately, due to the conservatism of the whole system, it is very difficult to carry out these policies. The loss of the old ideology has led to a veritable vacuum of ideas, an emptiness and lack of meaning in life, having a deep effect on the young and expressed in the morals of society.
It is in these conditions that we should examine the state of science and pseudoscience in Russia. In the former system there was not much room in such a highly controlled society for pseudoscience. But in the last years of the ancien regime pseudoscience emerged, mainly in the guise of astrology, parapsychology, quack medicine, and similar manifestations. The authorities themselves had not only lost control, but in many occasions the practitioners of pseudoscience found support in the decaying system. Some were supported by the military, in bogus and secret projects. These events were clearly symptoms of a deep crisis, and any conscientious observer saw them as a precursor of things to come.
In the present conditions all controls have now gone, no censorship exists, and even the limits of decency are trespassed in the press and on television. The freedom to publish has led to a veritable flood of pseudoscience. Books on various alternative theories, ideas, and teachings arc on the market. With the revival of established traditional religions and much greater freedom, bizarre sects spread, especially among the young.
Pseudoscience is even observable in high levels of the academic establishment. A well-known mathematician is publicizing a new chronology of world history where there is no place for the Middle Ages and a thousand years of history are thrown out. These ideas are based on computer studies of manuscripts and astronomical data. In spite of a strong statement of the Academy of Science of Russia and of professional criticism by historians, these works are published and discussed in the mass media. Work on cold fusion and other marginal effects are supported and publicized, for the level of expertise and often the great persuasive power of these pseudoscientists leads to the support of their ideas. Where, then, are the limits to public debate and of professional honesty? Or is this all a transient phenomenon? Out of chaos will a new order finally come? These are not easy issues to resolve. Time and again the public is persuaded, if not fooled, on important matters of professional interest, often amplified by the media.
At the same time numerous pseudo-academies have been set up, from shamanism and black magic to seemingly more respectable headings like “information science” and others. They sound reasonable, but the professional standards practiced are very low and often are really attempts to institutionalize pseudoscience. Unfortunately, these groups manage to get support and capture the attention not only of the media, but also of some political bodies. At the same time, the Academy of Sciences, which is certainly the main body of science and should be the custodian of intellectual standards of a great cultural tradition, has had a very difficult time establishing and propagating its scientific and intellectual authority.
These conditions are only made more complicated and difficult by a lack of coherent science policy. Perhaps in these cases the last vestige of science is the professional honesty and integrity of scientists, who must face these adverse conditions. This is the real and effective factor that will permit science, as a social institution, to get through these difficult years. In these matters international recognition and collaboration are very significant. Of special importance is the support for Russian science by the INTAS collaboration and the Soros foundation based on external expertise. Academia Europaea has brought recognition and moral support to many of those who were at a loss in these years of transition.
On the other hand, it may be thought that these conditions, so manifest in Russia and multiplied by the social collapse, are also the result of a global intellectual crisis, through which European civilization is now passing. Many of these symptoms can be traced to the crisis of rationalism. The criticism of rational thinking and antiscience is not unknown in the West. In Russia we do not as yet have deconstructionism as an influential trend in philosophy, but hypocriticism and challenging conventional wisdom are part of the story. Now, after a few years of such critical approach to the past and present, those who were the most outspoken have failed to deliver any positive message. On a political level this is leading to a disillusionment with the ideas of democracy and the ideals of Western culture. It is now obvious in the arts, and perhaps in no field it is so noticeable as in cinematography. All this may seem to be rather far from science, but it certainly demonstrates the changes in social consciousness now happening, and the changing mores and values of the people.
The most unfortunate thing is that economic decline is leading to a marked shift to the right with the emergence of nationalistic mass movements. If these developments carry on, Russia may follow the example of the German Weimar Republic, a historic analogy that is worth remembering. Thus we see that the symptoms of the pseudoscientific crisis may signal a deep-rooted and socially dangerous development both for reason and democracy.
Finally, what are the real long-term and profound reasons for these irrational developments, the decline of reason at a time when the possibilities for development are so numerous and the promise of science so great? It may be assumed that in facing and, it is to be hoped, resolving these issues a global approach is really necessary. These general trends are hardly ever resolved by the sorts of reductionist explanations offered on a short-term cause-and-effect basis. Perhaps these events have to be seen in the larger perspective, in the longue duree of great structural changes in our growth and development. But here we are lacking the time scale to objectively observe these events of our ‘daily concern. Can this loss of relevance and bearings be due to the very rapid changes now happening in the globally connected world – when there is no time for the longer processes of culture to take place in a world overrun by numerical growth, and when evolution has no time to develop by trial and error?
Proponents of the Standard Big Bang (SBB) model exemplify the smiling side. They claim that predictions of this model have been verified and all observations are consistent with it. This sounds impressive, but how can one reconcile such an assessment with the fact that discussions at conferences and in journals remain heated over at least five major areas of disagreement between nature and the SBB model? These include the dark-matter problem (90 to 99 percent of the universe is unseen mystery stuff), the causality problem (no explanation for why the universe popped out of a singularity), and the age problem (stars that appear to be older than the universe itself).
For example, in the world’s premier astrophysics journal I have seen one article by a leading expert in nucleosynthesis claim that the amount of helium in the cosmos must fall within a certain range or the Standard Big Bang model is “falsified,” while another paper in the same issue reports helium observations that lie outside that range. Since the public is regularly told that the success of nucleosynthesis predictions provides an evidential cornerstone for the Big Bang theory, the uncertainty in the actual data must come as a surprise to many.
As an explanation, some cosmologists might argue that the level of technical difficulty and detail in their presentations must be tailored to the needs and abilities of each audience. Quite true, but the take-home messages for public and academic discourse should still be the same. The Big Bang theory should not be described as “correct” to one audience and “in trouble” to another.
So which is it: has the Big Bang paradigm been “proved” or “falsified”? Perhaps the best answer is that the SBB model, like all scientific paradigms, is an approximation – and by definition approximations cannot be completely right. It is correct to say that Newton’s theory of gravity is a relic (though one still used in space-flight calculations), but incorrect to assert that Einstein’s newer theory is the final answer. Both are approximations, with the latter’s view of space, time, matter, and gravitation being far more accurate, mathematically complex, and conceptually exquisite. In time some broader, deeper theory may eclipse them both.
Still, how does one account for the confident smile that the cosmologist shows to the public and the furrowed brow shown to colleagues? Perhaps it is rooted in the natural tendency to assure one’s patrons (the taxpayers) that everything is under control. Another possibility is that scientists like to be viewed as brilliant thinkers who have all the answers. A third is simply that everything gets hyped these days. And last, as Thomas S. Kuhn implies in his classic. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the scientist is gradually steeped in the prevailing paradigm until it becomes common sense, and other ideas sound and feel wrong. Eventually one’s professional status becomes linked to that of the prevailing paradigm – and yet his or her most cherished goal is to discover something radically new. Such is the intellectual split personality of the scientist.
In the long run forthrightness is crucial both to scientists and to their broader audience. Cosmologists, science writers, and their editors should scrupulously treat the Big Bang model as an approximation. Even if it is a reasonably accurate explanation for the observable universe, our purview may represent only the tiniest of blips in an unimaginably larger and more intricate universe. As perpetual students of nature, we should not feel the least bit embarrassed about this but rather be proud of the human struggle to comprehend. As Einstein put it, “All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”
Scientists do not struggle toward a “final theory.” We have seen the folly of “absolute certainty” often enough to know better. Cosmologists should remain restless, questioning, unsatisfied – openly admitting current weaknesses. Good scientific theories, like the Big Bang model, are steppingstones to a widening, deepening understanding of the cosmos. Undoubtedly there are exciting new paradigms that await exploration. Science evolves.