Friday, March 28, 2014

And now the good news

Steve Shives has a whole series of these (obviously, as this is #77), but I particularly wanted to post this one.

Indeed, I meant to blog about that first discovery last week, but never got around to it. Here's the article in Scientific American:
Physicists have found a long-predicted twist in light from the big bang that represents the first image of ripples in the universe called gravitational waves, researchers announced today. The finding is direct proof of the theory of inflation, the idea that the universe expanded extremely quickly in the first fraction of a nanosecond after it was born. What’s more, the signal is coming through much more strongly than expected, ruling out a large class of inflation models and potentially pointing the way toward new theories of physics, experts say.

“This is huge,” says Marc Kamionkowski, professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, who was not involved in the discovery but who predicted back in 1997 how these gravitational wave imprints could be found. “It’s not every day that you wake up and find out something completely new about the early universe. To me this is as Nobel Prize–worthy as it gets.” ...

Such a groundbreaking finding requires confirmation from other experiments to be truly believed, physicists say. Nevertheless, the result has won praise from many leaders in the field.

Yes, this announcement needs to be confirmed. But that's how science works. And that's how scientists - unlike faith-based thinkers - come to a consensus about what's true and what isn't.

Typically, theoretical physics is ahead of experimental physics, by which I mean that hypotheses are proposed which we have no current way to test. But our abilities to conduct experiments are advancing every day.

We recently had a discussion about this in the Classic Science Fiction Yahoo Group. Were we reaching the end of what we could test in science? (If so, you could hardly call it science, then.) But this demonstrates pretty clearly that, if that's true at all, we're certainly not there yet.

Frankly, I'm blown away by what scientists have already been able to discover - with real evidence - about those parts of our universe so far away in both space and time. And they're getting better all the time. Heck, we're still confirming Einstein's hypotheses, as our technological abilities improve.

In this case, scientists made specific predictions about what we should find - as scientists do - if their ideas about inflation were true. If those predictions had not held up, their ideas would have have been proven wrong. This announcement is confirmation, though still not 'proof' that their ideas are true. That's not how it works. But if these findings are replicated, it will be an important piece of evidence pointing that way.

Furthermore, there are different models of inflation with different expectations of what we'd discover. As the article says, if these findings are confirmed, that would rule out certain models which predicted a someone different pattern or strength of gravitational waves.

It's neat stuff, isn't it? This is how science advances. This is why scientists can come to a consensus about what's true and what isn't, and then build on that foundation of reliable knowledge. (Compare that to religion, with a million different ideas about what's true and what isn't, since everyone can just believe whatever they prefer to believe.)

That's only part of this video, of course, though it's hugely important. But the other parts aren't bad, either. That "chicken from Hell" is pretty darn neat, isn't it? Furthermore, it continues to confirm that birds evolved from dinosaurs. That may seem old hat to you, but I'm old enough that this stuff still thrills me.

OK, I'm not so old that I remember the first discovery of Archaeopteryx in 1861. Heh, heh. But in my lifetime, I've continued to see better and better images of fossilized dinosaurs with feathers. That's not what I was originally taught about dinosaurs, in grade school, though it probably is today. Neat, huh?

Plus, how could you not love the discovery of a five foot high, eleven foot long chicken? :)

Note that, as Bill Nye pointed out in his recent debate with Ken Ham, all it would take to disprove current ideas about evolution is - among other things - one fossil in the wrong geological layer. (As Ham proudly noted himself, nothing would convince him that he was wrong that 'God done it.' That's science vs religion in a nutshell.)

Finally, Shives notes the announcement of a new optical switching device with switches 1/500th the width of a human hair and a thousand times faster than current optical switches.

For years now, we've been hearing that computers are reaching a limit, that we won't be able to continue the rapid improvements we've seen in the past. Well, maybe so, but we're not there yet!

When it comes to predicting the future, there are a lot of naysayers around. Yes, there probably are limits. But predictions of such limits usually discount scientific research and human ingenuity and are almost always premature.

This is a particularly cheering video this week, but similar good news is announced pretty much every week. The advances of science we've seen in recent centuries aren't even close to ending. In fact, I'd say that our advances are accelerating. We don't have hyperdrive or fusion power, not yet, but what we are learning is good news, indeed.

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