Saturday, 31 May 2014

Science and paradox

Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

Science is about testable knowledge, a way of explaining, through observation and experimentation, the ways in which physical matter and natural beings exist and function. A primary function of the processes of public engagement with science, therefore, is to explain things that might seem miraculous to an untrained eye. Inevitably, most school children figure out that earthquakes, lightning, and volcanic eruptions are not the work of wizards and witches.

Yet, some mysteries of life around us continue to mesmerise people, especially because they seem paradoxical and commonsense reasoning does not help decipher these mysteries. But, as physicist and scholar of public engagement of science Jim Al-Khalili says, systematic science education can show that what looks like a paradox is not one at all.

Al-Khalili was a star speaker at the Auckland Writers festival and we went along to hear him speak on ‘Science and the Big Questions’. His talk was largely based around his new book Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics and he went on to show how some of the simplest solutions to paradoxical issues can actually be counter-intuitive.

In a relaxed and entertaining style, he went through some simple mathematical steps to show how the Monty Hall problem and the conundrum of the probability of choosing the prize behind one of three doors in a game show is not a paradox at all. Among the other paradoxes, Al-Khalili sets out to de-mystify in his book are those of Schr̦dinger's cat which appears to be dead and alive at the same time and the Grandfather Paradox which exercises the brain with the twisted conundrum of time travel Рyou could travel back in time and kill your grandfather but then you would not have been born and would not therefore have killed your grandfather.

Al-Khalili is a humanist and does not see the place of religion in a world of scientific inquiry. Indeed, he begins his interview with Radio New Zealand on his role as the president of the British Humanist society.

Interestingly, however, science and religion shared the spotlight at the Auckland Writers Festival. Another major draw at the festival was Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, which focus on the historical figures of Jesus of Nazareth and Prophet Mohammed. Speaking about Zealot, Aslan said that he had to differentiate between theological truth and historical fact in his writing—a concern not dissimilar from the focus of science on establishing a truth based on empirical facts.