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Monday, May 16, 2022

Science Corner – Is it the truth?


The goal of science is to discover the truth. In Rotary Clubs, we have a 4-way Test, the first being “Is it the truth?”

Astronomers discovered dark matter by studying the rotation of galaxies and how they cluster. Physicists suppose it is made of particles not yet discovered, and theorists are thinking up many possible “dark particles.”

Experimenters are trying to discover them at Fermilab, at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland and elsewhere. Many of their published papers write “Search for …” in the title; they sought but did not find. Ideas then have to discarded, or at least adjusted. There is no shame in that, unless the idea was clearly impossible from the start. That’s how science progresses. When we discover a new particle, it is a breakthrough in our understanding of matter and the universe. Especially a dark matter particle.

Fred Hoyle was a brilliant astronomer (and excellent science fiction author – A for Andromeda among others) who proposed that the universe had an infinite past and future, always looking about the same. It was called the Steady-State model. He admitted that the universe is expanding, but new matter could be continuously popping into existence to keep the density constant. He did not like the alternative idea that the whole universe started out smaller than an atom and “exploded,” and derisively called it the “Big Bang.” When microwaves were discovered coming from all over the sky, as predicted by that theory, his steady-state idea was rejected. He was probably not happy, but in science “the truth will out” by observations, experiments, and calculations.

Unfortunately, “truth” is often absent in the big wide world. Politicians often say things that are completely false, sometimes knowingly, but their followers usually believe them. Conspiracy theories flourish on the internet. Putin has justified invading Ukraine by saying that the United States is trying to break up Russia. Is that true? History books are supposed to describe the past, but those to be published in Russia and in the USA will surely tell very different stories.

Physics tells us that “the past is past and cannot be changed.” But history and the past are very different things. So be skeptical when someone tells you “there it is – in black and white,” or you see something on TV or your computer screen.

Question everything, including what you just read!

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Michael Albrow
Michael Albrow
Michael Albrow is a scientist emeritus at Fermilab, Batavia and a member of Naperville Sunrise Rotary. Born in England, Mike lived in Switzerland and Sweden before settling in the U.S. 25 years ago.

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