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: cosmic tunes: you can hear the universe

Listen to the Universe and Learn About the Nature of Science

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  • Posted: 02/23/2013 8:00 AM
  • Updated: 02/23/2013

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

If you set aside the technological proficiency and the sheer human exuberance embodied in the astronomical work presented by Honor Harger, you're still left with a series of fascinating lessons on the nature of science. Let me discuss just a handful of them.

I want to focus on the final vignette that Harger discussed, the work of Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson. As she explains, these two scientists were working at Bell Labs in New Jersey in 1964 where they were perfecting a new type of antenna and using it to study the Milky Way. To their surprise, they encountered a sound that suggested a problem with their equipment.

Like all good scientists, they proposed falsifiable hypotheses to explain the anomaly they encountered, for falsifiability is the hallmark of good science. They managed to gather data that forced them to dismiss one hypothesis after another. Rather than giving up, rather than concluding that the problem was unsolvable, they continued their investigations and ultimately proposed that what they were hearing was cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB).

The CMB to which they were listening seemed to be coming equally from all parts of the universe and its very existence was consistent with predictions made by the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. Indeed, Penzias and Wilson realized that they were actually hearing the traces of creation. Their work earned them the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics.

Scientific answers are not always intuitive. As Harger points out, most people thinking of space contemplate a vacuum in which absolute silence prevails. And yet, counter-intuitively, space is filled with radiation to which radio astronomers can listen and study.- Michael Zimmerman

Compare their efforts with those promoting the portion of intelligent design known as irreducible complexity. The concept of irreducible complexity is incredibly simple. Those advocating for the idea assert that some natural phenomena are so complex that they could not have developed naturally -- they must have been designed by a creator in exactly the form we find them. More to the point, they claim that once this determination of irreducible complexity is reached, no further scientific investigation is necessary for there is nothing more to be learned. Proponents are thus calling for the end of science. Such an anti-intellectual position makes no sense and, happily, biologists who have resisted the call to halt their investigations have regularly shown that what some thought was irreducibly complex can be better understood as the product of an evolutionary history.

The work of Penzias and Wilson also demonstrates that scientific answers are not always intuitive. As Harger points out, most people thinking of space contemplate a vacuum in which absolute silence prevails. And yet, counter-intuitively, space is filled with radiation to which radio astronomers can listen and study. Again, turning to biological systems, it's important to recognize that a common creationist critique of evolution is that it isn't intuitive. But science is often complex and difficult to understand while our intuitive suppositions are often simplistic and erroneous.

The CMB discovered by Penzias and Wilson also demonstrate the absurdity of the false dichotomy regularly offered by Ken Ham, head of Answers in Genesis, and members of his creationist organization. Ham argues that science can be divided into two pieces, "origin science" and "operation science." As defined by Georgia Purdom, an Answers in Genesis staffer, "Origin science is based on events which happened in the past and are, therefore, not observable today." All facets of evolution are dismissed by the Answers in Genesis folks as being part of origin science and therefore purely speculative. As Penzias and Wilson have shown, though, you didn't have to be at the creation to study it -- you only have to have a robust understanding of what theory predicts and be well attuned to the data that present themselves. Like Penzias and Wilson, paleontologists, molecular biologists, anthropologists, geologists and many more have the ability to study the past carefully while living in the present. The data they collect are regularly compared with predictions and our theories are constantly being refined.

The amazing sounds that Penzias and Wilson recorded and that Harger shared, sounds that originated approximately 13.77 billion years ago, are fully consistent with the theory that our universe was created via the big bang a very long time ago. Those haunting sounds thus demonstrate that creationists like Ken Ham and others who believe that the universe was brought into existence by a deity a mere 6,000 years ago are categorically mistaken. The universe itself is telling us something very different, if only we would listen.

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