Saturday, 12 April 2014


It's July 16, 1969 and the start of the greatest voyage in our history: Apollo 11 is launched from Cape Kennedy atop a Saturn V booster (left). Four days and over 200,000 miles later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first people to set foot on another world (right). And all thanks to Newton's Laws of Universal Gravitation and Motion, exquisitely accurate at non-relativistic 'everyday' speeds.

Politicians and religious leaders invariably state with
certainty that their beliefs and preachings are the absolute truth. Guest blogger ANDY FLEMING investigates knowledge and certainty, and in the process reveals how a society that dispenses with true scientific scepticism inevitably ends in tragedy.

All of my life I've been fascinated by science, and although I'm not a scientist (I was however a laboratory analyst at ICI for many years, and I am an amateur astronomer) I still consider science to be the best human method for explaining how we, and the entire cosmos came to be. Unlike many other areas of human endeavour such as religion, our scientific theories, although still only approximate descriptions of reality, are testable, falsifiable and most importantly, can be verified by peer review. This cannot be said of many other academic disciplines, as instead of logical, rational thought, they rely on each individual's belief systems and their hypotheses are hence not testable in the real world.

Humankind's scientific theories are however, at best only approximations of reality, albeit often exquisitely accurate approximations. Over decades and centuries they have been developed and amended in the light of better data and evidence. For example Newton's Laws of Motion and Universal Gravitation were perfectly adequate up to 1915, and indeed are still used in determining a spacecraft's trajectory. Such an example is NASA/JPL's's New Horizons mission to Pluto, due to arrive with perfect accuracy to the nearest second at that distant dwarf planet in 2015. However, Sir Isaac Newton cannot be placed in the driver's seat in very strong gravitational fields or at relativistic velocities (speeds approaching that of light), due to effects including time dilation and Lorentz length contractions. And Newton’s speculative contention that time is a universal constant was proved incorrect by Einstein. It is the speed of light that is a universal constant.

It is in such situations that Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, developed from the edifice of Newton's work must be engaged.

Isaac Newton in 1689 (left). His Laws of Motion are perfectly adequate for launching spacecraft to the stars. Albert Einstein as a young man in the early twentieth century (right). His Theory of General Relativity builds on Newton's work at relativistic speeds and in regions of strong gravitational force, and is a requirement when adjusting clocks in GPS deep space systems due to even miniscule amounts of time dilation as a result of the varying strength of the Earth's gravitational field both on the planet's surface and in orbit.

Through science's language of mathematics and through its empirical research and practical experimentation, the two pillars of modern physics (seemingly bizarre and counter-intuitive in their verified predictions to both the public and scientists alike) – Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity are supremely accurate descriptive approximations of physical reality. Most importantly for our civilisation, and unlike the revelations, myths and prophecies of pseudo-science and religion, they ‘bring home the bacon’, witnessed by the presence in our lives of television sets, computers, the internet, the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system, telecommunications, nuclear power – the list is seemingly endless.

Space-time being dragged and contorted in the bottomless infinite gravity well of a black hole (left). Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, his 'theory of gravity'... forecast these bizarre objects decades before their discovery and fully accounts for their effects on the surrounding cosmos. In General Relativity, Einstein also merges special and temporal dimensions into one: space-time, and introduces the equivalence of indistinguishability of acceleration and gravity.

However, despite all the enormous benefits that the scientific enterprise has brought to human kind – life-saving vaccines, medicines and medical procedures, electronics, technology, even the manned and robotic exploration of our Solar System, there remains a concerning mistrust within the general population of science and scientists.

As previously explained, science and its theories, as a human activity is never perfect.  Scientists are not infallible, possessing the same vulnerabilities, frailties, prejudices and personal agendas as each and every one of us. And let's face it, science and mathematics are difficult subjects; such accurate models and descriptions of reality based on evidence and calculation are never going to be instantly decipherable to the layperson without at least some scientific education.

When it comes to the general public understanding of science, there is also the issue of public science education (or lack of it) in the West. We have conspired to produce a situation where our societies and economies totally depend on science and its offspring, technology. And yet virtually nobody knows anything about science. With scientific decisions being taken over important issues such as climate change, energy supply, atomic power, atomic weapons and stem cell research by largely scientifically illiterate members of the public and their elected political representatives, it's a state of affairs that will eventually blow up in our faces.

However, I think that the distrust and suspicion of science has another reason all together, and this can be found in some of humanity's darkest moments and activities. Here I'm talking about the misuse of science, especially by politicians, exemplified in weapons of mass destruction, the holocaust in Nazi Germany in which eight million people were murdered, and the fact that in the 1960s over half of the world's top scientists were involved in some respect in the atomic arms race between the former Soviet Union and the United States.

The late Dr Jacob Bronowski, responsible for the epic 1973 BBC
Television documentary series, "The Ascent of Man". (Image courtesy of the BBC).

The battle lines were drawn through the very heart of the scientific establishment, the further development of J Robert Oppenheimer's Manhattan Project 'bomb' (see right graphic) being simultaneously propounded by Edward Teller, and yet vehemently opposed by that greatest of all scientists... the genius Albert Einstein.

All of the above historical abuse and misuse of science are emphatically not, however, the fault of science itself. As that brilliant polymath Dr Jacob Bronowski (1973) explains in his fabulous chronology of the development of the scientific method, and how science works, "The Ascent of Man”, such abuse of science is what happens when human leaders aspire to the power of gods, and believe they have absolute knowledge and certainty. It is also what happens when the population at large indulges in a philosophy of ignorance stemming from a high degree of scientific illiteracy and an absolute lack of healthy scepticism. It is the epitome of Bronowski's "push button society" complete with a total absence of any check in reality, the very cornerstone of true science.

The very bedrock of the scientific enterprise is testability, repeatability, falsifiability and verifiability by peer group. No other area of human endeavour is so unsympathetic to an individual's challenging new hypotheses. Indeed, scientists still compete for a Nobel Prize to be the first to discover cracks in Einstein's greatest achievement, his Theory of General Relativity, despite the fact that it is nearly one hundred years old. And certainly at some point in the future, someone somewhere will nail down a flaw in Einstein's edifice. And therein lies another unique facet of science: unlike politics or religion there are no ‘authorities’ in the subject; no ‘high priests’.

Anyone can make an astonishing discovery and propound a new theory, but it must be falsifiable, verifiable and testable. After all, Einstein was slow to learn to talk, a difficult pupil at school (which he left early), held an ordinary position as a patents clerk in Berne, Switzerland, and yet went on to be the most famous scientist of the twentieth century. His concise and humbly titled 1905 paper On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies ushered in the paradigm-changing concept of special relativity and the age of modern physics.

To be successful in science one needs imagination and scepticism both. Regarding the former, there is no greater example than Einstein's strides in relativity, all derived from one amazing imaginative thought as he toured Italy on a bicycle: what would the world look like if one rode on a beam of light? What an incredible thought for a sixteen year old child. Little did he know it at the time, but this single thought would lead inexorably to nothing less than a total revolution in our concepts of space, time and energy. But imagination is not enough; scepticism is particularly important in the ability to distinguish fact from speculation.

I hope that by now I've explained adequately how all of our science, indeed all of our knowledge is never absolute, never certain. Never perfect. The pursuit of the truth may indeed set you free, but through science you'll never acquire the absolute truth about the construction of reality.

But what happens when an individual or nation confuses its imperfect knowledge available through science, with the unattainable ideals of certainty or absolute knowledge, and aspires to the latter?

Such aspirations, with no test in reality inevitably lead to the gates of Dachau, Buchenwald and Auschwitz, the refugee camps of Gaza or genocide in Rwanda or the Balkans. The ultimate result can be gullibility on an industrial scale and the dispensing of scepticism by a whole people who are mindlessly prepared to allow their evil political leaders to mislead and manipulate them.

In 1973, BBC Television first broadcast The Ascent of Man, widely regarded still as one of the best documentary series ever made. The expensive sets, on-location filming around the globe, huge production values and the sheer enthusiasm of its presenter Dr Jacob Bronowski were all attributes that would ensure its success. One such location was the pond outside the crematorium at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, into which the ashes of millions of holocaust victims, including those of the relatives of Dr Bronowski were poured.

With certainty, but without any evidence in reality whatsoever, the Nazi Germany believed all of its victims to be inferior or sub-human. This despicable genocide was not perpetrated by science, or even by gas, it was committed by individuals defaulting to a push button society, individuals who were not prepared to confront their own ignorance, prejudice and arrogance.

Bronowski's ten minute clip at Auschwitz is regarded by many as the most poignant and moving moment in the history of broadcasting. As Bronowski scoops up the pond's sedimentary ashes, he is seen to have tears in his eyes as he logically explains how humanity allowed itself to stoop so low. He describes the unthinking, non-sceptical, unscientific push button society that was Hitler's Third Reich.

Scooping up the ashes of a generation of an entire people, he movingly states that,

“There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility. That is the human condition; and that is what quantum physics says. I mean that literally.”

Holding the ashes of Holocaust victims in the mud, Bronowski’s entreaty to all humanity is that,

“We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.”

Now please, watch Dr Bronowski's clip filmed at Auschwitz and edited from this wonderful documentary series. It is an excerpt from "The Ascent of Man", Episode 11, "Knowledge or Certainty", at the crematorium and pond at Auschwitz.

Bronowski, J., "The Ascent of Man", British Broadcasting Corporation Books, 1973. ISBN: 978-0563104988.

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1 comment:

  1. I could be wrong, but I think that the BBC's propaganda navel-gazing 'programme' with Dara O'Brien on April 21 at the fortieth anniversary of the start of BBC2 failed to even mention its own best documentary series of all time.

    Such is the level to which BBC2 has descended, the programme was all about petrol heads, sports 'stars'... virtually anything that wasn't about knowledge. A celebration of ignorance.

    Thank goodness for YouTube (when it doesn't bend over for the copyright police and fraudsters) The entire series of the Ascent of Man with Jacob Bronowski, is available here: