The Question of Science

When I was 12, a friend gave me The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide as a birthday present – 5 books bound together with an ornately engraved gold and black cover. It was a behemoth of a book, chronicling the adventures of Englishman Arthur Dent and his extraterrestrial friend Ford Prefect as they traveled through the galaxy. It seemed like the Bible of Science Fiction, and I absolutely couldn’t put it down. I think I read the entire series over a Spring Break one year, opting out of swimming, instead immersing myself in science fiction lore.

Through Arthur and Ford, I vicariously ventured into all corners of Douglas Adams’ universe. I encountered a cow that wanted to be eaten, a Paranoid Android older than the Universe, and a babel fish, which, when placed in your ear, allows you to understand any language.

In the first installment, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a group of hyper-intelligent beings builds a supercomputer called Deep Thought, in order to help them solve the mysteries of the universe. They ask Deep Thought the ‘Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything’, which turns out to be 42. But, as the computer aptly points out, the Beings know the answer but not the question. In the sequels, armed with an answer, the extraterrestrials backtrack through possible equations and formulas, and build an even more powerful supercomputer to discover the question.

One of the reasons I love the series is that every instance of science or adventure is so incredibly fantastical. But recently I’ve found that some of the ideas in the Hitchhiker’s Guide hit close to home.

When I first thought about writing this blog post, I wanted to write about physical intuition, the ability to qualitatively explain complex processes by thinking about them in terms of everyday experiences. I’ve since come to realize that “everyday experiences” doesn’t quite do justice to the way most people perceive science. Science is about asking questions and, hopefully, getting answers. However, in many ways, we don’t even know which questions we should be asking.

Science asks how, not why. It’s a subtle difference, one that is easy to ignore or overlook. But it lies at the heart of the way we see the world. How looks for an explanation, a sequence of events that brings a system from point A to point B. It is the search for processes that accurately describe the world around us. Even cause and effect lie in the realm of how. Why, on the other hand, begs a purpose, an intention.

These two questions seem so genuinely similar that we group them together, using them interchangeably. The lack of distinction is so ingrained in our society that it has become a part of our language. My roommate here at CERN, Emil Öhman is originally from

Sweden, so English is his second language. Every night over dinner we talk about philosophy and physics, and even though he is fluent in English, he always asks me to clarify what I mean when I use the word reason.

Emil brought to my attention the fact that reason has two completely separate meanings. Sure enough, as thesaurus.com attests, we use the word as a synonym for ‘motive’, the why, and ‘cause’, the how. The former connotes purpose, which is inherently human, while the latter seeks to explain natural occurrences. Consciously or not, we often use reason ambiguously, hinting at both meanings simultaneously.

Syntactical quirks aside, this inability to distinguish between how and why is an integral part of the way we interact with science. Through high school and my freshman year of college, I’ve heard the phrase ‘physical intuition’ thrown around in physics and math classes in the likes of “from our physical intuition, we can see that…” and “it’s obvious if you use your physical intuition, that this problem can be distilled down to…”

In many cases it is the most powerful problem solving technique that we have. Sometimes the math required to solve a problem is incredibly involved, and you have to think back on all of the physical processes you’ve observed in your life, pick out a few that share a semblance of similarity, and compare and contrast them in the hopes of developing a hunch. It allows us to run thought experiments in our heads, taking as an axiom that the physical laws that govern all processes are the same.

The classic examples of using physical intuition tend to fit this mold fairly well. Richard Feynman famously asked his students to find the weakest point on an infinitely round table with four evenly spaced legs. In the absence of physical intuition, this problem would require applied physics and intensive mathematical calculation. Using personal experiences, it is easy to guess that the table is weakest between any two of its legs.

Albert Einstein used physical intuition to formulate his theory of relativity. He realized that if he were in a metal box isolated from the outside world, and he felt a downward acceleration, he wouldn’t be able to tell if the box was a rocket accelerating upward, or if a gravitational body was pulling him closer. Einstein didn’t need to run experiments or create a perfectly isolated system out in space in order to come to his conclusion. Instead, the Equivalence Principle, as it became known (for equating inertial and gravitational acceleration) required physical intuition and a bit of creativity.

But it seems like the analogies are now in large part based on social structures. Physical intuition has grown to view particles as people, and subatomic phenomena as social interactions. I remember my Chemistry teacher in high school explaining the force between protons and electrons as “opposites attract”, as if it were an obvious corollary to a similar phenomenon in dating. We referred to certain elements as “wanting” to have a complete valence shell of electrons, when in reality atoms of that element lose or gain electrons because they are unstable.

We even personify Natural Selection, the process by which life evolves to handle environmental and social conditions. I’ve heard over and over again that Evolution “favors” those that are fit. Evolution itself has no wants or desires. It just happens to be true that on average organisms that are more fit to survive, survive.

Whereas physical intuition used to ask how, our personification of science has added an element of why. Instead of asking, “how did such biodiversity come to exist?” we ask, “why were these organisms chosen to survive?” By bringing inanimate objects and abstract processes to life, we give them thoughts, feelings, and even emotions! We impose upon them the human constructs of intent and purpose.

Indeed, it’s such a satisfying way to view the world. Emil thinks of particles as people that push each other away when they get too close and invade personal space, and pull each other closer when they grow too distant.

I only recently realized that my own conception of particles and elements relies heavily on social interaction. On the whole, the more fundamental a particle, the more stable it is, and the larger and more complex it becomes, the more prone it is to decay. Some, like the proton, have lifetimes longer than the existence of the Universe, while others live for fleeting fractions of a second. The same logic applies to elements. Those with more atoms tend to be less stable than elements containing only a few. I think about these particles and elements in terms of social groups; the larger the group, the greater the likelihood that members will disagree, and someone will want to leave. Complexity spurs on collapse.

There’s something poetic in our relationship with Science. We are composed of particles, but we view particles as if they were innately human. We personify elements and assign rationale to mechanisms that have no inherent purpose. Our social, as well as physical experiences, point us to the answer…

Which brings us back to the ‘Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything’. Is it wrong to incorporate why into our understanding of Science? Does why complement the empiricism of how, or refute it? Clearly viewing particle physics through the lens of social structures has limitations. It could, however, lend new approaches to old problems. After all, why appeals to something deep down, which how alone can never hope to satisfy. Could there be two fundamental questions, two ‘Ultimate Questions of Life, the Universe, and Everything’?