[extropy-chat] No rejection of science! Re: SI morality

Amara Graps amara at amara.com
Tue Apr 27 13:20:51 UTC 2004

Chris Phoenix:
>There's another facet of the way science is practiced today.  There is
>not much space for observations without theory.  We are happy to
>categorize, but mere cataloging is not interesting.  So an observation
>like "When I set up my apparatus a certain way, these meters read
>differently than I expect, and I can't figure out why" will get
>ignored unless they can say what it means.  But the minute they
>propose a theory, that theory is open for criticism--and once it's
>been well criticized, everyone forgets or discounts the original
>observations.  In some fields, it's hard to see how any new phenomenon
>could be discovered anymore.  "Our theories don't predict that, so it
>must be wrong" is an acceptable argument not just in thermodynamics
>but in high-energy physics, condensed-matter physics, and many other
>fields where we ought not to assume we know all there is to be known.

I think that there IS room for observations with little theory, but
perhaps you are not aware about it. Astrophysics is primarily an
observational science. You cannot perform interactive experiments on
objects that are located thousands or millions of light years away.
You can still test an idea though, get observing time, and try your
best to see if that idea works. Observing time is expensive on the
major telescopes, so your idea should be a good one to pass the

[Planetary science is alot more interactive because the turn-around
time for many objects (out to Saturn, say), are measured in hours.]

Observation without theory is very important when building
instruments, and every scientist and engineer that I know that
performs such a task has notebooks with notes about every aspect of
the instrument design, construction, testing, calibration,
performance. They *must* do this, it is not even something that they
consider 'maybe' doing. So they do. I cannot stress this enough,
keeping good notes on every observational parameter is never an
optional task.

Another area where there is room for observation without theory is
what is now referred to as "knowledge management". ESA (probably NASA
too, but I'll be able to say more in about a year) is very concerned
that the knowledge that went into the designing and building and
launching of instruments on space missions be preserved, so they
require all of the scientists involved to be 'recorded' (video, audio,
written) with respect to their thoughts about their instrument, the
mission, etc. At times it doesn't look very scientific at all, but the
goal is that some fuzzy information recorded in this way might have
relevance to unexpected instrument performance and therefore prove
valuable, especially when spacecraft arrival on an object is ten years
in the future.

Chris, I've seen a number of observational papers, where the theory
was not an important part of the paper. I have two of them, in fact, from
twenty years ago on the Voyager 2 Photopolarimeter project. I was just
a kid, and certainly no Saturn rings expert, yet our instrument
presented to the scientific community the world's highest resolution
Saturn rings data until the mid-1990s. I/we had to say *something*
about what we saw, so we did, in the best way that we knew. I thought
that the referees were very fair, then and now, on that particular
aspect of the observations.  Spend some time reading the arXiv
archive in astrophysics, and you'll find other observational papers
too. [ http://xxx.lanl.gov/list/astro-ph/new ]



Amara Graps, PhD          email: amara at amara.com
Computational Physics     vita:  ftp://ftp.amara.com/pub/resume.txt
Multiplex Answers         URL:   http://www.amara.com/
"We haven't the money, so we've got to think." -- Ernest Rutherford

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