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Starts With A Bang

Weekend Diversion: More To Learn

No matter how great your expertise, new discoveries await for the curious.

“There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination, and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.” –Jiddu Krishnamurti

How many things are there that “you just know” in your heart to be true?

Where every instinct you have tells you that this is how it has to be?

Or where the facts you have lead you to an inevitable conclusion that cannot possibly be wrong?

It’s okay to believe that something is likely, overwhelmingly likely, or even to base your life on the assumption that this thing you feel is 99.9999+% certainly true. But the minute you remove all doubt — the minute you remove the possibility that you could be wrong — you’ve done the worst possible thing to yourself: you’ve halted any chance you have at learning something new. Have a listen to Ray Lamontagne’s song, Lesson Learned,

while you consider an event that happened in my past. When I first learned about the Big Bang, I thought it was one of the most amazing ideas — one of the most amazing confirmed and supported ideas — I’d ever heard of.

Image credit: wiseGEEK, © 2003–2014 Conjecture Corporation, via; original from Shutterstock / DesignUA.

The idea that the Universe began from a hot, dense and expanding state, that the expansion was slowing down due to all the gravitation from the matter-and-energy in the Universe, and that we could observe the evidence of this simply blew my mind. The Universe emerged from — as best as we could tell — a single, solitary point, from a state of incredible energies, densities, temperatures, and of incredibly high symmetry.

And it led to a fascinating possibility: that eventually, the Universe would reach a maximum size, cease its expansion, and reverse itself, heading back towards that “single point” state again: with the same high energies, densities, temperatures and degrees of symmetry that it had at the very beginning. It could even possibly result in the cycle starting all over again.

Image credit: HowStuffWorks, 2009, via

To me, this idea was beautiful, elegant, compelling, and was consistent with all the evidence around. And then in 1998/9, the first evidence (from distant supernovae) started to come in disfavoring that picture.

Image credit: Riess et al., Astronomical Journal, pages 116 and 1009, 1998 and Perlmutter et al., Astrophysical Journal, 1999, pages 517 and 565.

Even as a non-expert in the field of Type Ia Supernovae, that evidence was easy to question (if not outright dismiss) on many grounds:

  • maybe those supernovae weren’t reliable as distance indicators,
  • maybe something was happening to block the light from such great distances,
  • maybe the environments in which the supernovae occurred were evolving over time,
  • maybe the light itself was interacting with other fundamental particles in the Universe,
  • or maybe improved observations would show that this wasn’t a robust result after all.
Images credit: NASA/Dana Berry, Sky Works Digital (left sequence); NASA/CXC/SAO/M. Karovska et al. (top right); CXC/M.Weiss (middle right); P. Marenfeld/NOAO/AURA/NSF (bottom right).

Yet even with that preferred picture firmly entrenched in my head, and with that new evidence that challenged that picture, I had a unique tool at my disposal thanks to my understanding of science both as a process and also as a body of knowledge. You see, I was able to formulate for myself exactly what evidence it would take to change my mind on the matter in question.

And that’s what I would argue is the most powerful tool in the arsenal of anyone in any knowledge-based field: the ability to recognize, identify, test and accept a superior idea or method when one arrives. I had objections to the new evidence; I had biases that led me to question and scrutinize it; I set for myself a difficult set of criteria that the new idea would have to clear in order to convince me.

Image credit: Amanullah, et al., Ap. J. (2010).

But in the end, it did convince me. I did change my mind, I did learn something new, I did overcome my biases, and I did wind up changing my picture of the entire Universe. I wasn’t the first to get on board with the new paradigm, as it took me years to come to that conclusion. But I got there. As Carl Sagan so famously said decades ago:

“When you make the finding yourself — even if you’re the last person on Earth to see the light — you’ll never forget it.”

Science is hardly the only field where that applies, and that’s why I’m proud to be a part of what promises to be one of the most exciting live events of the summer!

Image credit: Hand-Eye Supply Curiosity Club | Core77.

The Curiosity Club, based in Portland, OR and part of Hand-Eye Supply / Core 77, has, as part of their motto: “We admit that it is impossible to know everything about anything and thus we remain perpetually curious and perpetually novice.” And I — along with six other speakers — will be taking to the stage to share with the world instances from our own lives and experience where we had to face the demons of our own worldview being challenged by the evidence in front of us. It’s a difficult challenge for anyone to rise to, but by remaining curious, and open to new evidence and revised conclusions, I firmly believe we can learn any truths about the Universe we care to investigate.

As the event site itself states:

Throughout life human beings are presented with de facto “truths” that are actually totally erroneous. These untrue “truths” may come from pervasive misunderstandings within culture, they may be handed down through institutional systems like education, government or religion, and sometime they come straight from a trusted authority figure like a parent. Big or small, they deserve to be questioned!

So plan on being at the Hollywood Theatre at 4122 NE Sandy Blvd. in Portland, OR, on June 22nd from 7–9 PM, for this first-of-its-kind event! (And RSVP here.)

Image credit: Bennett, Christian Science Monitor.

Living a lie is often easier than confronting the truth, but when we do, and bask in its light, there’s else nothing like it in the Universe. We all remember Descartes “cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), but perhaps a better form of this is given by “dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum,” which is to say, I doubt, therefore I think, and therefore I am.

Be confident, but never certain, and all the knowledge in the world — and beyond — is yours for the taking.

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And if you missed them, check out our comments of the week on Scienceblogs here.


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