Jacob Barnett and Scientific Progress

StumbleUpon, the bringer of all great discoveries, took me to an article last night about a 12 year old savant which really excited me. Jacob Barnett, based on my understanding from this article, appears to be a genius of the highest order. His Mathematics IQ was graded at 170 – the highest score possible. He taught himself all of the maths you are meant to learn in highschool in two weeks, because he was about to start studying at university and wanted to make sure he had the basics down. And he did that while he was 12. As a 12 year old university student, he helps explain things to other students who are struggling.

My favourite story though, was from when he was 3:

they went on a tour of the Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium at Butler University.Kristine Barnett will never forget the day.

“We were in the crowd, just sitting, listening to this guy ask the crowd if anyone knew why the moons going around Mars were potato-shaped and not round,” she recalls. “Jacob raised his hand and said, ‘Excuse me, but what are the sizes of the moons around Mars?’ ”

The lecturer answered, and “Jacob looked at him and said the gravity of the planet . . . is so large that (the moon’s) gravity would not be able to pull it into a round shape.”

Silence.

“That entire building . . . everyone was just looking at him, like, ‘Who is this 3-year-old?’ “

Anyway, he is about to turn 13 now, and is also about to be given a research position at his university (I don’t think they left him studying undergrad at university for even a whole year).

Jake’s Theories

As an almost 13 year old prodigy, Jake already has a couple of new “change the text books” theories which he is developing. First of all he is developing a “new expanded theory of relativity” which will expand on what Einstein did. Secondly, he thinks the big bang theory is flawed, and so is developing his own theory to account for the creation of time and matter.

The Potential

Jake Barnett is exactly the sort of person that science needs to come through every now and then (I hope anyway) and really put everything on the line. The obvious potential benefits are huge of course. He could improve existing theories, and solve long standing unsolved problems. He might even come up with a better theory than the fringe theories which scientists have been disagreeing over for decades. But all of that is pretty normal. Non-Genius scientists do all of that stuff all the time. That is what Science is about. I see Jake’s potential as much bigger, and playing a much more important role in ‘Scientific Advancement’ at large.

Jake has the intellect, and the speed of information uptake to provide a real critical analysis of what Scientists think they know. Jake is potentially an incredibly strong catalyst for the next scientific revolution…

Scientific Revolutions

The fundamentalists and science deniers who still exist in our amazing society are constantly claiming that science is flawed, and that it is full of errors and/or lies. They believe this because they don’t like the conclusions that scientists reach, and they don’t understand the science itself. It still amuses me when talking to creationists who are absolutely convinced that one day Scientists are going to realise their errors, and like has happened in the past, they will go through a scientific revolution in to the next more correct theory: Creation!

The fact is, Scientific revolutions happen. Old theories have been replaced in the past, or, more commonly, old theories are altered and improved. The non-scientific out there who want to believe certain things always pronounce the science which disagrees with their beliefs to be one of those theories which is due to be changed any day, and as demonstrated by the creationist lot, will do anything (except science) to make it happen.

But as Thomas Kuhn’s theory on Scientific Revolutions basically observes, eventually some new genius, or a new generation in generation will eventually come through and as they learn the facts and theories of their chosen scientific trade, they will be perfectly placed to view this information critically. They will be in the process of learning the tools of their science, while simultaneously not be completely indoctrinated with ‘the truth’ of the conclusions. And if the conclusions are flawed in some way; if there are too many bits which don’t make sense – then that new generation, or that particular genius will typically find themselves stuck on those problems. Rather than just accepting the problems as acceptable difficulties or margins of error, the new generation can focus on finding a better solution because they aren’t attached to the old one.

Jake’s Potential Role

So my interest here, is the role that Jake can play in this long scientific dance of continual improvement and refinement of theories. He has learnt the maths of astrophysics in, I would think, record time. He understands the principles intimitely, and yet certainly hasn’t had time to form emotional attachments to paradigms or frameworks of thinking which will force his brain to accept only one option.

Basically, Jake is exactly what all of the young earth creationists out there are waiting for – someone without a belief-system axe to grind, who understands the science to go through physics, and change it all! If they were right. But of course, so far Jake seems to basically agree with the theories currently accepted. He hasn’t claimed that relativity is wrong (yet), but seems to think that he can improve it. He does think the Big Bang theory is wrong, and I hope he is right (because I never much liked that theory anyway ;).

Every new scientists that goes through this process is a small testament to the rigours of our scientific progresses. Every new person trained in the skills required to do the maths, and to understand the principles used in predicting and estimating motions, histories and actions is one more person to falsify the theories which are currently accepted. Another person to spot ‘the lies’ about radiometric dating. Another person to spot the mathematical errors in relativity. Another person to simply observe that the entire scientific theoretical basis of everything we know is a giant house of cards about to collapse on itself.

But it continues to not happen. And Jake is a tornado about to blow through that ‘house of cards’. If modern physics is flim flam, he will blow that house of cards away. If not, then he will be able to just get on with the good work.

Either way, we win. Science will function as intended, theories will be revised or improved and the entire human race will benefit from the process.

PS: Not that I am trying to put too much responsibility on Jake’s shoulders. It isn’t his ‘responsibility’ – it is just one of the sorts of consequences that can arise from someone in his position…

also,  The original article that inspired this post is well worth reading:  Genius at work: 12-year-old is studying at IUPUI

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Less Wrong

When comparing two differing opinions or world views, it is possible for both of those opinions to be technically “Wrong”, yet have one of those opinions significantly less valuable than the other. This is a reality which many people seem to misplace when analysing different philosophies, paradigms and arguments and one which I would like to rectify.

Let me explain this error in a bit more detail with a very straight forward example.

Assume that the mean wavelength of light visible in the earths sky is actually 487nm. Assume this is the objective fact, and thus all other numbers are wrong. We then ask two people to measure the wavelength of light and tell us what they think it is. The two independent answers we then recieve are 484nm and 673nm.

Technically, they are both ‘Wrong’, but they are not wrong to the same degree. One is significantly more wrong than the other. In fact, for practical purposes, one is ‘basically correct’ while the other is ‘dead wrong’. In essence, we have one person saying the sky is blue and another saying the sky is red. The fact that the ‘blue’ answer was not exactly correct does not make it equivalent to the red answer – and this analogy applies across the board.

It is possible to be more or less wrong about things, and the degree to which a statement is wrong matters!

Religion vs Science

It is absolutely true that scientifgic theories are traditionally wrong. They have been wrong constantly throughout history, and are probably full of errors more far reaching than any of us alive today can imagine. But they are less wrong than every other non-scientific theory ever invented, and continue to be less and less wrong all the time (in general).

I have seen the following reasoning used by religious apologists numerous times in the past – they imply or directly state that the errors of science in some way justifies their ongoing belief in the paradigms outlined in the bible, or held by their chosen church. They have ignored the fact that theories can be more or less wrong than other theories and thus they are assessing two vastly different qualities as equivalent.

One of the beautiful things about science is that it follows the same general pattern as any other progressive, evolving thing in the universe – it builds on previous knowledge, adds to that knowledge and generally improves (value call) with time. So from every generation to the next (at least since the enlightenment to now) we have manged to get our scientific theories to be less and less wrong all the time.

Religions on the other hand continue to maintain their original positions (generalising of course) that ‘God’ told them the answers to begin with and that there is no need to continue enquiring.

So what we end up with is something like this:

How science gets less wrong with time and religion doesn'tThey’re both wrong the whole time, but science just continues to get less wrong, while the religious perspective is still stuck on the same religious text and/or teaching which it was founded with.

Being less wrong is an important distinction to make.

Shane

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