Humpty Dumpty’s science

‘When I use a word’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’    

                                                                      Lewis Carroll

In Lewis Carroll’s stories, characters like Humpty Dumpty are probably portraits of academics with traits exaggerated to the point of absurdity while Alice is the voice of shrewd common sense cutting like a knife through pretentious nonsense. The quotation above fits the traditional scientist like a glove. It is fun to have Humpty and Alice discuss some of the examples in modern physics where tradition and reason are most obviously at war.

It is important to understand the dilemma in which traditional scientists are trapped. The vocabulary of traditional science consists of concepts defined by each other, rather than by observations. Concepts may therefore be added freely but none may be removed or replaced since then the whole complex collapses like a house of cards. Traditional science has developed defensive procedures to prevent that happening and these must be followed to get your work published. Scientists are not unaware of the deficiencies of concepts like time and distance but see no easy solutions. I believe that they should share their problems with non-scientists who at present tend to regard scientists as infallible. That is very far from the truth.

I am long retired and free from pressure so I can contemplate the collapse of traditional science calmly because I think science would be far better and stronger for it. At present we can see only the first few steps along the new scientific road but I am confident that the richness of traditional science will soon be reproduced on sunder foundations. This blog is about starting science again, this time unconstrained by a predetermined vocabulary, but guided by observations and the common sense personified by Alice.

The Humpty/Alice interchanges:

‘In 1676,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘scientists used clocks and rulers to measure how far it is along a diameter of the Earth’s orbit round the sun. In the first case, they found 1000 seconds and in the second case, 186 million miles.

‘So,’ said Alice, ‘they discovered that one second is equal to 186000 miles.’

Humpty Dumpty gave her his most scornful look. ‘No’ he said, ‘they discovered that 186000 miles per second is equal to the speed of light.’

‘But a comparison between clocks and rulers has nothing to do with – what was it you said – the speed of light’, protested Alice.

‘When scientists use words’ said Humpty Dumpty grandly, ‘they mean what they choose them to mean, neither more nor less. It’s a question of who will be master, scientists or words.

‘In 1888’, said Humpty Dumpty, ‘two young men designed a very sensitive instrument to detect variations in the speed of light.’

‘Did they find any?’ asked Alice politely.

‘No, nothing at all,’ answered Humpty Dumpty.

‘So, there’s no evidence for the existence of the speed of light’ said Alice.

‘What great nonsense you talk’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘Their failure to detect anything proved that the speed of light does not vary.’

‘Like failing to spot the Loch Ness Monster proves it only surfaces in thick fog’ thought Alice.

‘In 1905,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘Einstein discovered that if one twin stays at home and the other makes a journey, the one that makes the journey returns home younger than his brother.’’

‘Isn’t that because what people think is a measurement of a time is really a measurement of a combination of a time and a distance?’ asked Alice.

‘Certainly not’ said Humpty Dumpty firmly, ’it was the discovery that moving clocks run slower than stationary clocks.’

‘In laboratories all over the world’, said Humpty Dumpty, ‘students are given the task of measuring the speed of light by measuring a time and a distance separately.

‘How can they tell the difference? asked Alice, ‘Isn’t it the case that everything measurable is a combination of the two?’

‘You are very provoking’ said Humpty Dumpty, but he didn’t answer the question.

The question will be answered in my next article

Good bye and thank you for joining me.

Stan Clough

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