February 28, 2006

The mystery of unsolved puzzles

I read a letter in the National Geographic the other day that bemoaned the loss of mystery through scientific discovery.

The author of the letter was responding to an article describing developments in neurobiology. They said that the author of the article had 'abolished the human spirit' by suggesting that the brain worked through firing synapses and denied the possibility that the mind is simply what the brain does. This made me think:

  • Are we destroying our fascination with the worlds around us and within us by finding out how it all works?

  • Cannot understanding the workings of something increase one's fascination? I become increasingly amazed by life and its processes the more I learn, because it's all so incredibly complex.

  • Has history shown that trying to understand our surroundings is something innate in us as humans?

  • Does everything work by a set of rules and mechanisms that are always obeyed and are definable? If not, we require the intervention of something mystical.

  • Will we ever figure everything out, or are some things just too complex for our comprehension or investigation?

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  1. It depends on which way you look at it; my viewpoint as a scientist is that the discovery of how things work is fascinating. So I agree with point two. However, there is only a finite amount of things that we can discover, surely? So I think the answer to point five is yes, but it's a long long long way away yet!

    In reaction to point 4, there's a new discovery every so often that "threatens to re-write the laws of physics". But I don't believe in "something mystical" in terms of anything other than something scientific that we haven't discovered yet.

    Do you read New Scientist? You can get access to the archive, etc., online via ATHENS. I think you'd enjoy it :)

    I like your blogs, btw, they make me think :-)

    28 Feb 2006, 18:32

  2. Matt Gilbert

    Personally I think our attempts to understand and explain the world around us only serve to increase our fascination with it.

    28 Feb 2006, 18:54

  3. Chris May

    a) No. I'm not, anyway

    b) Yes

    c) I think so.

    d) If I balance a sharp pencil on it's point, then let it go, the rule for which way it falls can't be defined (the system is too sensitive to it's initial state), but that doesn't mean that it's 'mystical', at least not in the usual sense)

    e) I don't think so, myself.

    28 Feb 2006, 20:23

  4. The suggestion that we should prevent ourselves from solving puzzles because when we do we have fewer puzzles to solve seems rather absurd. Should we stop solving crosswords and the like too, as there are only a finite number of those that can be made? I should hope not.

    Whilst there may only be a finite number of mysteries for us to investigate, that number is so enormous it seems silly to think we need to ration them. I have to wonder what benefit we would get from having mysteries if we weren't allowed to try and solve them.

    Besides which, whenever we manage to find anything out about the world, we almost invariably end up with more unanswered questions than we started with. While it might be possible for us as a species to entirely understand the universe (although I wouldn't bet on it), I rather doubt it's possilbe for any individual.

    28 Feb 2006, 21:07

  5. Alastair:
    Thank you! Yes, I do read New Scientist. Not as often as I'd like to, but hey!

    Colin and Matt: I agree entirely.

    Chris, the sharp pencil thing:
    I can't pretent to know anything about the physics of a falling pencil. However, you seem to suggest that the rule for falling is dependent on the initial state. Presumably, if we could define the initial state then we could define the rule. Please tell me if I've misunderstood.

    01 Mar 2006, 12:23

  6. Chris May

    The problem is that we can't know the initial state well enough. For a suitably sharp point*, the implicit (quantum) uncertainty in it's position/velocity means that it's not possible to predict how it will fall. And it's worth bearing in mind that this isn't a technology problem – it's not just that we haven't yet invented a sufficiently good microscope to look at the pencil. If the current understanding of physics is correct then it's not physically possible to make such a measurement.

    * If you find the idea of a quantumly-sharp pencil unrealistic, Schroedinger's Cat is basically the same thought-experiment rephrased.

    01 Mar 2006, 15:13

  7. The mathematician in me says that, thanks to the work of Godel, there exist problems for which no solution may be proven. This pleases me. The reason the results were so hard to accept for the logicians was because, traditionally, to pit themselves against the religious community, the scientists had held the deep belief that everything was explicable through science. It is indeed this belief that still drives many researchers today.

    It also says that seeing a pattern is much more satisfying than seeing a random formation. The beauty of a flower for me is more beautiful through its spirals and proportions.

    My inner philosopher reminds me that, while it may not be possible to understand everything, it is more than possible to reach a point where we understand everything we need to. For the rest, we can happily sit and watch it all go by, playing out its patterns in front of us, wondering at its beauty without needing to ask why.

    01 Mar 2006, 22:54

  8. Ian

    I have spent many years reading into different peoples beleifs and theories on on the way the world works and our role here and I have come to the following conclusion.

    Science is the way forward. This is because for something to become a scientific fact is has to be proven and nothing else does. If you follow religion then you are going on stories pasted down over many many generations and are all very profitable and vary from geographical locations.

    Plus Humans have emotions and depending on the emotion or mood that you are in at the time depends on your look at life.

    I do not think science will ever take away the facination of anything. I see science as fun and sometimes unbeleivable (Almost ;o))

    We don’t know everything about the human bady/mind and if we ever did know anything then we could look at the Earth, The Seas, The Moon, The Planets, and so So on.

    My 1st question is, what will come first. 1, Humans destroying the planet. Or 2, Humans Saving the Planet.

    2nd Queston. What do we need to save the Earth from.

    3rd Question. Does the Earth need to be saved?

    4th Question. Does anyone really care enough?

    24 Apr 2007, 15:22

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