“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.”
These quotes were recalled by J Robert Oppenheimer, the Father of the Atomic Bomb, at the Trinity test of the first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945. It used 6.2 kg of plutonium but exploded with the equivalent force of 20,000 tons of TNT. The bomb worked by nuclear fission. When a large atom captures a neutron, it can become unstable and break apart into 2 or more smaller fragments, releasing additional neutrons which keep the chain reaction going. The products of the reaction weigh slightly less than the original atom and neutron. This “missing mass” is converted to energy. Amazingly, for the Trinity bomb, less than 1 gm of mass was converted to energy, or about equivalent to 1/3 of a US penny, yet accounted for nearly all of its explosive effect. So, where did the energy come from? It was described by Einstein several decades before in his famous equation: e=mc2, where the energy equals the mass times the speed of light squared.
There is another type of nuclear reaction called fusion, where two atoms are smashed together to make a single, heavier type of atom. Because the resulting atom is slightly lighter than the starting atoms, the “missing mass” is also converted to energy. This is what powers the stars, including our sun. Fusion is an ideal energy source as the necessary isotopes of hydrogen are all around us in sea water. Fusion is also much “cleaner” than fission with a byproduct of plain non-radioactive helium. So why don’t we use fusion?
Fusion is difficult under “normal” conditions. Nuclei have the same positive charge and so are repulsed from each other. If you can get them close enough, however, an attractive nuclear force takes over and combines the nuclei, releasing energy. In the sun and in fusion reactors here on earth, this is done by creating high temperatures and high pressures to push the atoms together. Unfortunately, with our current designs, it takes more energy to get the atoms close together than the reaction creates.
In 1989, at the University of Utah, Fleischmann and Pons announced that they had discovered “cold fusion”. They had a special alloy that they claimed concentrated the hydrogen atoms in such a way that there were able to combine and release fusion energy at room temperature. This was initially heralded as a great breakthrough. If true, it could truly have revolutionized energy production in the world. However, as others tried to replicate their results, it was found to be a mistake. Errors were found in the process, and “cold fusion” is now a term of derision.
So, what does this have to do with the scientific search for truth?
Historically, explanations for things were drawn from religious, supernatural, or mythological areas. People started looking for more naturalistic causes over 2000 years ago. The search for scientific truth passed though many phases in many cultures, including the Greek world, the Islamic world, and the Western world.
The currently accepted model, which has enabled a true scientific revolution, is the hypothetico-deductive model, or scientific method. According to this model, there are 4 main phases, with varying labels:
1) Characterization – This involves defining a problem. It is based on experience, measurements, other information, etc. Sometimes, things come in a flash of inspiration. Other times, it involves a lot of background work.
2) Hypothesis/Theory – This consists of forming a conjecture and trying to come up with a reasonable explanation for the problem
3) Prediction – This allows the hypothesis to be tested. What results should be seen if the hypothesis is true?
4) Experiment/Observation – This tests the hypothesis. If observed experimental data agree with the predictions, experiments can be continued to further support the hypothesis. If experimental data does NOT agree withe the predictions, go back to step 2 and make a new hypothesis.
Several comments on this:
– Hypotheses can NOT be proven true, they can only be proven false.
Every time an experiment is done, it should agree with a prediction. If more and more experiments confirm this over time, it becomes a “better” hypothesis. But it only takes one time when it doesn’t work to invalidate the hypothesis. Of course, for a long-standing hypothesis, it makes sense to check that the experiment was done correctly, but a single “bad” outcome can restart the process.
– Theory is a another name for hypothesis (not exactly, but close enough for this post).
One of the strategies used by some religious people to attack scientific concepts with which they disagree is to say that they aren’t really proven but are just “theories”. This is absolutely correct. This is how science works. Everything in science is a theory. Some things have stood the test of time, have been confirmed through hundreds or thousands of experiments, and have predicted future results exactly. But, there is always the possibility that they may change.
– Good science is open and reproducible
Scientists keep meticulous records. When they publish their results, they publish how they got the results. Anyone else should be able to duplicate their results exactly if they replicate the experiment exactly.
– Theories become refined and may change over time
Newton defined 3 laws of motion, explaining masses, forces and movement. For over 200 years after he defined them, they predicted the results of all experiments that scientists performed. However,they were eventually found to have flaws. Newton’s “laws” don’t work at very small sizes, at very high speeds (approaching the speed of light), or in areas of very high gravitation (such as near massive stars and black hole sized objects). These laws are still used for normal, everyday calculations, but refined equations better describe the full range of conditions.
Science has been spectacularly successful. The computer with which you are reading this is the culmination of thousands of breakthroughs and experiments. Medicine has increased the quality and longevity of millions of people’s lives. We feed more people and have contracted the world through travel. And all because of a few simple steps, repeated over and over.
So back to nuclear energy and Einstein. In 1905, based on his experiences and thought experiments, Einstein made the hypothesis that massive amounts of energy could be released from a small amount of mass. Based on this, predictions were made. Due to German aggression, Einstein suggested to FDR that the United States work on an atomic bomb. Experiments confirmed predictions and the nuclear age began. The method was successful enough that new bombs can be designed and tested entirely in computer simulations. So far, Einstein’s hypothesis hasn’t been disproved.
Even though it’s powerful, however, science is NOT perfect. Fleischmann and Pons show that mistakes can happen. Data can be misinterpreted. People may head down detours and dead-ends. Ultimately, however, theories are only as good as their predictive power. The scientific method is designed to self-correct, and in the case of “cold fusion” and many other things, it did.
While we don’t need to know everything in science, it is important to understand the scientific method and what theory means. I was in a YM class a few years ago and a leader gave an often quoted story about Einstein. Einstein was approached by a teaching assistant about a test he was giving, that it was the same test as the previous year. Einstein thought for a moment, smiled, then replied that it was ok, that the answers had changed. In our class, the leader used this example to suggest that science was “faulty” or “untrustworthy” because it changed. He taught that we could only trust God and the Church, as they were the only “unchanging” things in the world. I understand the point he was trying to make, but the logic was completely wrong and the disparaging attitude towards science was harmful.
Science does change. We are continually learning more. We are told that in the last days that knowledge will flood the earth. Some studies suggest that human knowledge is doubling every 10-15 years. Much good has come from this.
In the next post, we are going to discuss the Search for Religious Truth, followed by a couple of posts on strategies for reconciling the two. Then the fun begins, as we’ll cover a wide range of topics touching on science and religion once the groundwork is set.
- What do you think when things like “evolution” are presented as “just theories”? What does “theory” imply to you?
- While the “14 points” suggest that the Prophet can speak on any subject at any time (which theoretically makes sense given his role as a direct conduit to God), do you expect scientific knowledge to come through a Church channel or through a scientist?
- On my mission, it took months for the General Conference message to filter to Europe. It can now be streamed live across the Internet. When my mission was over, I was back home across the Atlantic, a few hours after I left. Are these examples of knowledge flooding the earth that we are promised in the last days?
- Moroni 10 and Alma 32 are often presented as “experiments” on faith. Do they truly follow the scientific method? It not, how do they differ? If someone does NOT receive any answer as per Moroni 10:4, is this a flaw in the hypothesis (ie. the promise), or is it a flaw in the experiment (ie. the person)? Or is this an example of the “opposite” of the scientific method, where only a confirmatory answer is acceptable and a negative answer is thrown out?
- Is these any basis for a foundation in science, or as was taught in the YM lesson, is science too “wishy-washy” to base anything on?
- I think it is absolutely mind-boggling that less than 1gm of mass can be the equivalent of 20,000 TONS of TNT. Isn’t that cool?
(NOTE: This is #3 in a multi-part series which starts here. )