Outrageous Acts of Thinking: The Misuse of Science

I met an installation artist at a dinner party a couple of months ago. When she asked what I did, I told her I was a physicist.

"I love physicists," she gushed. "I work with a tribe in the Amazon and they are more quantum mechanical than us."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Quantum mechanical, you know...more spiritual, less materialistic than the Western world. "

Physicist Wolfgang Pauli's phrase came to mind: "That's not even wrong." I had the decency not to say it, but instead pointed out that she was using the words "quantum mechanical" inappropriately.

"They're not your words," she said. "I can use them as I please."

Of course. In her eyes, science is rife with outrageous ideas, so why wouldn't her outrageous analogy be equally valid?

Once I overcame my frustration, I started to think about the misuse and misunderstanding of scientific ideas. What distinguishes an outrageous idea from a reasonable one? And how are these different from a true or a false idea? I suspect that many people confuse reasonable/outrageous with true/false, which contributes to difficulties they have in understanding the sometimes counterintuitive scientific findings.

To address this confusion, I offer pragmatic definitions (quibblers, you have been warned!) of the words reasonable, outrageous, true and false as they apply to scientific ideas.

An idea that I find reasonable is one that fits with my perceptions and current knowledge. An outrageous idea doesn't agree with my perceptions or preconceived notions of reality i.e., current theories of the natural world. (The word current is key: an outrageous idea can become reasonable over time.) A true idea has been thoroughly tested and agrees with available evidence. Note that scientific truths are provisional and can be upended by new evidence. A false idea is one where theory and reality don't agree. That is, the phenomenon being studied can be explained by a different concept than the one proposed or it cannot yet be explained.

By combining the reasonable/outrageous categories with the true/false one, we can gain insight into how science works (see table below).

Who says Science Movies Don't Matter?

When I was 12, my father took me to The Children's Museum in Mexico City to see a movie that I remember as Planets, Moons and Stars. It was unlike any movie I had seen before. There were no good and bad guys or furry animals -- just colorful spheres rotating around a ball of fire against an empty black background. My heart filled with joy. I dreamed of flying into outer space, of becoming an astronaut and exploring that dark space myself. I still remember the excitement I felt when we left the movie theater, and how I peppered my father with questions about the Solar System and the Universe on the way home.

My interest in science was endearing at 12, but at 16 it was viewed as a waste of time. When I confessed to my parents and teachers in high school that I wanted to study math and physics at university, my dreams were met with disapproval. I was told those careers were too hard for women and I should study something more appropriate like communications or marketing.


The Most Beautiful Garden in the World

Secrets of the Universe
July 10,  2015

I recently visited one of the most beautiful gardens in the world. It is a garden without flowers or exotic trees. It has no idealized landscapes of rock, sand and water. Just a few concrete paths through patches of grass where components of old particle physics experiments sparkle in the sun. There is the Big European Bubble Chamber, which used to hold almost 10,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen for recording particle tracks; its two-ton piston lies wistfully nearby. The RF (radiofrequency) cavity that once accelerated electrons and positrons around the Large Electron-Positron Collider, reminded me of a submarine from a Jules Verne novel. And the Cockroft-Walton generator towered over me like a friendly robot. 

This is the Microcosm Garden at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, more commonly known as CERN. CERN has many claims to fame. Several subatomic particles were first found there and it is the birthplace of the World Wide Web. CERN was most recently in the news for the discovery of the Higgs boson, a crucial step in understanding why some fundamental particles have mass. This discovery was made at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s most powerful particle collider and the largest machine ever built. The LHC lives in a circular tunnel 27 km (17 mi) in circumference and an average depth 100 m (328 ft), and it boasts to be both the hottest and coldest place in the galaxy.

Read the complete article at Secrets of the Universe


Science Channel Premieres New Episode of Outrageous Acts of Science

Science Channel's fast-paced countdown series OUTRAGEOUS ACTS OF SCIENCE is back with more mind-boggling experiments, extraordinary inventions and jaw-dropping scientific stunts. All across the internet, self-appointed scientists are filming their OUTRAGEOUS experiments and misadventures. Our team of top Science brains is ready to analyze the how and why and to choose the very best. Forget everything you thought you knew about Science when OUTRAGEOUS ACTS OF SCIENCE returns tonight, June 20th at 10PM ET/PT on Science Channel.

In this season, producers continue to scour the web for the most shocking stunts and mind-blowing displays of Science in action. Each episode counts down twenty clips while a team of real-life scientists breaks down the principles behind the backyard experiments. Our team of OUTRAGEOUS experts includes returning favorites like astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi and physicist Debbie Berebichez.

In the premiere episode, "Fact or Fiction," our Science brainiacs play detective as they separate Science fact from Science fiction. Applying the principles of physics, chemistry, biology and engineering, they break down videos that seem too OUTRAGEOUS to be true.

OUTRAGEOUS ACTS OF Science is produced for Science Channel by October Films. For October Films, the executive producers are Denman Rooke and Gareth Cornick. For Science Channel, Wyatt Channell is executive producer and Jeffrey Stepp is coordinating producer. Bernadette McDaid is vice president of production.


The Flame Challenge: Explaining Science to an 11-year Old

As a curious 11-year-old, Alan Alda asked his teacher, “What is a flame?” She replied: “It’s oxidation.” Alda went on to win fame as an actor and writer, became an advocate for clear communication of science, and helped found the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He never stopped being curious, and he never forgot how disappointing that teacher’s answer was.

This was our team's entry: