Thursday, September 08, 2005

Science Blasphemy

I’m about to commit a blasphemy against science. I’m going to uncover the truth behind a secret plot perpetrated by school teachers everywhere. I’m going to get flamed for this, I just know it. I don’t care. The truth must be told! Bring on your Bunsen burners and beakers you filthy scientists!

Okay, I’m getting carried away here. It’s interesting how perceptions and knowledge change, though. This morning during chemistry class I became disillusioned about scientists. Okay, not really disillusioned, it was just driven home to me that scientists are people, and that people are imperfect, even scientists. I knew that before. Today was just a great example of it.

Of course, you’d never hear such a thing in a high school science class. Theses folk always say, “This is the way it works! Science only gives us correct answers because it’s self-regulating! Scientists are the new gods!” Sorry, gentle readers, this is simply not true. In fact, scientists can’t agree on what science is, what terms mean what, what is real or not, and so on. More importantly, they can’t figure out how much of it to teach you.

There are some pretty good reasons for this. Science students would become terribly overwhelmed if we tried to teach them everything we know, or don’t know, about any given subject. Instead of learning anything they could apply, they’d walk around in a mental daze, unable to function on any meaningful level. They’d become unemployed because they’d question the existence and meaning of everything. In the end they’d just starve to death. It’s kind of like what philosophy majors do.

Let me back up to last night, and my Biology class. We were talking about the basics of the chemistry of life. More specifically we were talking about atomic structures, molecular bonding, and measurements so that we could eventually talk about the chemistry of life.

So we were learning all kinds of fun stuff like how to measure atomic weight through daltons, what a mole is, and so on. Not the furry ground animal, mind you. This mole is Avogadro’s number in molecules. In case you were wondering, Avogadro’s number is 6.02 x 1023. Its’ kind of like eggs being sold by the dozen. Molecules get sold by the mole.

This morning in Chemistry we start talking about the same things. (Good. I can always use a review.) The trouble is we don’t use the same terms. Instead of a dalton, my Chemistry Professor (Chem-Man) starts talking about Atomic Mass Units (amu). It turns out they’re equivalent. They’re both equal to 1/12 the mass of a carbon atom.

Why don’t they use the same terms? Was there a coup? Did all the older “pro-daltonites” and the newer “pro-amu-ers” duke it out with urinometers or something?

And they don’t give the same answers, either. My biology professor (Bio-Man) said, “The mass of a proton and a neutron are the same.” Chem-Man says, “The mass of a proton and a neutron are slightly different.” Bio-Man says, “Electrons have virtually no mass, so we don’t bother with counting them.” Chem-Man said roughly the same thing, except he added that the weight of an electron was 9.109 x 10-28 grams. Apparently someone has bothered counting them.

The whole atomic mass vs. atomic weight thing is weird, too. Atomic weight is “the average mass of an atom of an element, usually expressed relative to the mass of carbon 12, which is assigned 12 atomic mass units.” Atomic mass is “The mass of an atom, usually expressed in atomic mass units.” It also seems that the atomic mass is the same, regardless of the number of neutrons in an isotope of a given elements, but the atomic weight is different, because it takes into account all those extra neutrons in isotopes.

Wait a minute . . . (or is that weight a minute?) We just got done being told that weight is linked to gravity and so scientists measure things in mass, which is independent of gravity. Something has got to be done about this misleading terminology!

Anyway, it’s just one example of how scientists can’t agree with each other. It’s as bad as putting rabid atheists and Christian apologists together in the same room.

In other words, scientists are people, and science is a social pursuit. They’re not perfect, and so science isn’t either. Get used to it. It's the best we can do. Some scientists several hundred years ago thought the Earth was the center of the universe, too. Now we know better.

If someone tells you, “This is a scientific fact,” just remember, what used to be a scientific fact, is now a history lesson. Chances are, everything we hold to be true will become history in a few hundred years, as well.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Cool blog, dude... But then, all your blogs are!

MRKH