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Q & A: Why go to school?

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Most recent answer: 10/22/2007
Hello, I would like to ask about science, language, and philosophy: Is it scientifically correct that mathematics, physics, genetics, biology, and etc. is just a bunch of logical words or definitions put toghther in writings, speeches, books, and etc. used to express our understandings? Why does everyone have to go to school anyways? Also, if we can synthesize elements, is it possible to make atoms? Lastly, is it possible to condense an atom, molecule and or a quark so small that it becomes a black hole? These are some of the questions "on the back of my head"; answer please; I thank you all.
- Numvreet Ducho (age 19)
First University of Tumec
Well, science to me is the application of the scientific method. You form a hypothesis you'd like to test, you also need a "null" hypothesis which is different, you work out the predictions of the hypothesis, design and conduct an experiment to distinguish one from the other and see which one is favored by nature, and repeat as your knowledge grows.

It is impractical for everyone's knowledge to be gotten in this fashion, but it is the most reliable (and self correcting! If you have some "knowledge" which is mistaken, eventually someone may do an experiment to set it right. And if experiments are what determines which hypotheses are correct, or at least which we should believe, then we don't have troubles with deciding among competing authorites which may fly in the face of what can be verified in nature).

Lots of expeirments are lengthy, expensive, difficult, and time-consuming. It is much easier for one person who has done the work just to tell everyone what the results are. This is one reason why language, writing, and modern information technology are so crucial to our understanding of nature. If we'd have to figure everything out each one of use for ourselves, we'd always start at the same starting place and only have one lifetime's maximum worth of effort to discover stuff.

So here's the point about school. It is an organized way for people to convey to each other about what has been learned in the past, and people usually attend school when they are young enough to be able to go to school a large fraction of their time without having to work all the time. (Kids live with their parents or guardians as they attend school). That way we can get all these defintions, words, speeches and books conveyed in an organized, efficient manner.

But is that science? No, these are the results of scientific inquiry, the fruits of our labors. Some may even be wrong. We hope not, but we may be mistaken about some things. Some just reflect the current state of knowledge. We used to teach Newtonian mechanics as true, even though we now know that quantum mechanics and relativity extend it in important ways.

Yes, it is possible to make atoms. I don't know offhand of a way to change the sum of the numbers of neutrons+protons available, but there may be such a way (you need something called CP violation to do it, and the CP-violating systems we know about are in the K and B meson systems. K mesons are lighter than protons and neutrons so their decay chains cannot include creation of new protons and neutrons. It may be possible with the B's which are much heavier but I don't know of the exact mechanism).

But even if you cannot create new neutrons and protons, you can rearrange them. And free neutrons will decay into protons. You can smash up a heavy nucleus, and the lighter nuclei made in the process will collect electrons from their surroundings to become new atoms. Release a few neutrons from some process and they will decay to protons, which will attract one electron apiece to make new hydrogen atoms.

Quarks are as far as we know, point particles -- you cannot condense them. You can take a small amount of matter and make a small black hole out of it, but it turns out these "evaporate" very quickly due to Hawking radiation.


I would slightly disagree with Tom about what science is. The whole interaction between theory and experiment is complicated and plays out a little differently for each major advance, rather than always following a simple alternating pattern. Hypotheses don't always have to be clear cut before experiments, and they certainly don't have to divide into binary pairs like 'hypothesis' and 'null hypothesis'. Also, I'd like to emphasize that there's an enormous logical/mathematical structure tying together much of science, so that different parts aren't off doing their own things completely independently.

Mike W.

(published on 10/22/2007)

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