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Meditation 653
The Uncertainty of Science

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Earlier this week, I read a 1954 essay by Charles Edward Coulson (1910 - 1970) on The Age of the Universe. This essay, written for the layman, laid out the current state of knowledge about the origin and age of the Universe.

At the time of writing, there were three main models for the origin of the Universe;

  1. from a dense condensed cloud of matter (Eddington)
  2. from one gigantic atom (Lemaître)
  3. from all matter being compressed in an extremely small volume, (Gamow, Alpher, Hermann, Hayashi)

None of these models addressed where the initial "blob" came from, possibly it was eternal, possibly the result of an earlier collapsing universe. The baseline for determining the age of the Universe was considered to be the beginning of expansion.

Coulson pointed out that there was an exciting new theory being put forward by Hoyle, Littleton, Bondi and Gold, that of "continuous creation." Brand new hydrogen atoms were springing into existence at a rate to balance the expansion of the Universe. Under this model, an infinite Universe could have always existed, always expanding. But, this idea was new and not widely accepted.

Most likely the age of the Universe was six billion years.

Coulson explained that several lines of evidence all pointed independently to approximately this age. Thus he felt safe to write:

"... further refinements are not likely to alter the figure of six billion years by more than ten or twenty percent. Still, we had better not be too dogmatic; and extrapolations of this kind may well be more dangerous than in most other spheres.

Half a century later, we know that the 1954 estimate was far too low. The currently accepted age of the Universe, based on a model developed since then and based on observations which were not then available is 13.7 billion years.

Could this latest estimate change? Of course. Perhaps there is something wrong with the Big Bang Model. Perhaps there are factors, yet undiscovered, which affect our observations of space.

There is an inherent uncertainty in science.

I'm about halfway through reading Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale. In this book, Dawkins traces our evolution back in time, identifying 39 points where we share the last common ancestor with various other species alive today, initially with chimpanzees, and concluding with eubacteria. Throughout the book, he identifies uncertainties and disagreements in our "family tree." He admits that with new evidence, some of what he has written will prove wrong. And he feels it necessary on several occasion to include a footnote entreating creationists not to quote him out of context on these uncertainties.

There is an inherent uncertainty in science.

There are those who would say that science is another religion, just another belief system. Of course this is not true. Religion gives certainty, in the absence of evidence. Science gives us uncertainty: it just provides the best answer based on current evidence, but subject to change with new evidence.

Perhaps that is the difference between believers and non-believers. We can live with uncertainty. Many of us even prefer uncertainty to baseless certainty.