THE BLOG

'Wrong' Science is the Best Science

07/03/2013 14:26 GMT | Updated 05/05/2013 10:12 BST

I'm as guilty as anyone else, when I was a sixth former I always used to tease people in the year below saying "oh everything they tell you in physics in YOUR YEAR is a lie", thinking with ultimate smugness that sixth form is the time when they start telling you the real stuff. Of course I was wrong, and we continue to study 'wrong' science all the way until we graduate but it turns out there's a great reason why this wrongness is necessary.

So I worry that after looking at New Scientist's 'Crunch Time for Physics: What's Next?' section there will be a not-so-unpopular opinion of "so the theories we've paid people to produce over the past 100 years are just as useless as the ones before?" Which misses the point of scientific advancement, but the point is never emphasised strongly enough.

The ideology behind that opinion is "if science isn't right, it's wrong" and it's quite a short sighted because it misses out all the 'middle bit' between the times when all of a sudden "the way we used to think about science doesn't fit anymore" see the Quantum revolution, Einstein's relativity and the new one coming soon to a university near you (subject to funding). What I mean by the 'middle bit' is the years and years when people are nursed into believing "sweet, so we have physics sorted!", and they have reason to believe this, all the data agrees with them and they've started building things with their new found knowledge until they find the few pieces of data that dramatically disagree. This often comes from smashing things together with higher energy ( fire electron into gold sheet, leading to the Bohr atom ), measuring things with higher accuracy (slight changes in the orbit of mercury, leading to General Relativity) or devising ingenious experiments (Stern Gerlach filter - Quantum Mechanics) and then the current theories just don't explain what we're seeing and we have to adjust and make new theories which can explain old data and new. This is what Newton meant when he talked about 'standing on the shoulders of giants' ( in one of the very few modest moments of his life).

So on to my point, i.e why bother teaching the wrong science. The fact is that when Einstein proved that gravity didn't work how we thought it did all bridge engineers didn't suddenly take sabbatical to study Einstein's papers on general relativity and their old bridges didn't fall down, in fact most of them probably didn't hear about the discovery. Why? Because for a lot of really useful purposes, the more detailed science is just not necessary. In fact a lot of graduate physicists will go into technical jobs where they won't use any physics discovered in the past 100 years and will quickly forget anything discovered after. Even research scientists dealing with effects outside of their expertise will approximate using old theories first, and see if they need to go into the new, more brutal, stuff after.

Why? Because new science is normally very very brutal, clunky and time consuming. Without exaggeration I have witnessed a problem being done 'Einstein's way' (using four dimensional geometries and other horrible business) stretching across thirteen pages of working where it finds a result that has been done in one page using Newtons method. The purpose of that seemingly pointless endeavor was twofold, firstly to point out that we can still get old results using new methods and secondly to show why we would never ever want to.

The moral is one you can only truly realise when you hear the same heartbreaking line: 'this is beyond the scope of this course' year after year, it is that the aim of physics should not be some golden answer to the universe at the end of the tedious multibillion pound rainbow from which we can then manipulate nature entirely. Instead physics provides a set of tools to approximate natures effects to different degrees of accuracy and at their own level all of them are useful. What I mean is that when we are using interactions involving the Higgs boson for technologies in hundreds of years, the New Scientist will be writing headlines predicting theoretical physics' approaching demise, they will be right and we get a whole other set of theories to discover, but the old wrong stuff is still basically right.