USS Clueless -- Science and Engineering

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Science and Engineering (and why Creationism is bunk)

At it's most fundamental level we can define science as two different activities: the collection of facts about the universe, and the attempt to create explanations of how those facts relate to each other. The scientific enterprise has been going on as long as humans have existed, but science as we now use the term dates from about the fifteenth century, which is where it finally got onto the right track, and also when it finally started developing procedures which work.

Engineering is easier to describe, though no easier to carry out. The goal of engineering is to create useful devices. For every scientist, there are probably 10-20 engineers. (Science doesn't make money. Engineering does. We engineers are a lot more profitable to hire.)

The "collection of data" part of science is pretty easy to understand, but the "tie it all together" part is widely misunderstood.

There are three words in rising order of importance: conjecture, hypothesis and theory.

Now part of the problem is that these are technical terms with very specific meanings to a scientist or mathematician, but they're not used the same way by laymen. As a result, there's confusion when the words are used.

A conjecture is an interesting idea about the universe, but it's little more than speculation; about all that's been done in the way of research on a conjecture is to consult the person's memory to make sure he can't think of anything which directly contradicts it.

A hypothesis is much stronger; it means that someone has spent a few hours in a library consulting relevant texts and still hasn't found anything which contradicts the conjecture, or which makes it unimportant or nonsense. (Sometimes more than that goes into checking hypothesis. Often a hypothesis is sufficiently strong to justify a research grant.)

A theory is far more than that. A theory is the result of years of research often by dozens or hundreds of people, who have examined every possible aspect of the theory they can, and have accumulated a very large body of evidence to back it up. A theory is ready to join the body of scientific knowledge, and is as reliable and as well trusted as anything else in that body.

But that's not how the layman uses the word theory. When a layman says "I've got a theory about that..." he means he has a guess. He's using the word the way a scientist would use the word conjecture.

Where the problem lies is that when a layman hears a scientist refer to a theory he assumes that it's nothing more than a conjecture.

In actuality, a theory is as close to a fact as is reasonably possible. Nothing is ever 100% certain, but a theory is as close to certain as we can make it. A fact is an observed event in the universe. A theory is a description of how several facts relate to each other, revealing some underlying phenomenon. But both of them have the same degree of reliability and certainty. In that sense, a theory is a fact, or as close to being one as it can reasonably be. For all practical purposes, Theories are True.

To say that something is "just a theory" is to betray complete ignorance about how science uses the word "theory". Theories aren't "just". Theories are extremely strong and very, very well backed up.

Generally in science, theories get tested; if someone publishes a theory, others will perform experiments or attempt observations to confirm or deny that theory. Good theories are fruitful; they suggest alternative research. New theories will grow on top of older ones.

But at a certain point, the scientists lose interest; they'd rather work on something new.

That's where the engineers come in and where they contribute to the scientific process.

An engineering field is usually based on a scientific field. The engineer takes the findings of the scientists and uses that to try to create useful devices or processes. (Note that "useful" is in the eye of the beholder. Someone out there thinks napalm is "useful".) And implicitly, every time every engineer does this, he's testing the original science. And that's critical. Because there are a lot more engineers than scientists and they're constantly testing their own part of science and will continue doing so as long as they can use that part of science to create useful devices or processes. They aren't consciously testing the science, but it's inherent in what they do, because they use science to make predictions about how they should design their mechanisms or processes.

And it's the theories, not the facts, which they use most commonly, because theories permit predictions. Facts just sit there.

For example, "Mechanics" refers to classic physics at the "normal scale" (which would mean anything larger than a grain of sand or smaller than the Sun at speeds less than a tenth of the speed of light) and was largely developed by Newton (generally considered the greatest scientist of all time) and by Galileo, which a small revision by Einstein early in the twentieth century (and I'm not being facetious when I say that).

No scientist bothers to perform tests on mechanics anymore; it's uninteresting. Conservation of kinetic energy, conservation of momentum, friction, these things are so well established that there's really no point in a scientist spending time on them. But a lot of engineers are testing them constantly; Mechanical Engineering is based on it and anyone designing an object with moving parts is testing classical mechanics.

The "theory" of mechanics is true. It's not "just a theory". So the engineers get the results they expect, and you can buy cars and refrigerators and washing machines which work.

The army certainly doesn't consider itself to be part of the scientific process, but every time they fire an artillery piece, they're testing the laws of motion, of gravitation and of friction. They make very careful calculations about where they think the shell will land because it's useless if it misses (their goal being to hit something specific, typically because they want to destory it) and they have to take all of those things into account when they figure out how to aim the gun. And when the shell hits where it's supposed to, it represents yet another confirmation that those theories are all correct. Artillery pieces hit what they aim at because "the theory" of mechanics is true.

Every time an aircraft takes off successfully, it's testing the theory of fluid dynamics. If the Bernoulli principle were wrong, the plane would never leave the ground because its wings wouldn't generate any lift. But the Bernoulli principle is true and every plane which flies proves it. The "theory" of fluid dynamics is true. And if it ever fails to work, some engineers will be visiting some scientists and asking some rather pointed questions. (One of the problems was that fluid dynamics above the speed of sound act entirely differently, which is why it was such a bitch to break the sound barrier. Ultimately, fluid dynamics had to be rather substantially enhanced to include behaviors above the speed of sound.)

Cases in which engineers get the wrong answers have happened. One such case was in radiation engineering. In the 1940's, some engineers were working on trying to develop radar, and they noticed that their background noise level rose considerably sometimes. Other times their noise levels were very low. They checked all their equipment and couldn't find any explanation as a flaw in their design, and after long careful thought they realized that it was happening whenever the Milky Way was high in the sky (day or night). Having explained the problem sufficiently for their own purposes, they informed some scientists about it, then continued working on their radar. While they were curious about what was going on, it wasn't the engineer's job to figure out where all that excess microwave radiation was coming from, as long as they knew it wasn't coming from their hardware through bad design. Once they understood it enough to predict it, they could work around it. But scientists did want to know, and invented radio telescopy, and through it have learned an enormous amount. Nonetheless, the first radio telescope was a malfunctioning radar receiver which wasn't really malfunctioning.

Chemical engineers constantly test the science of chemistry. Electrical engineers constantly test various parts of physics. Every time you turn on a light, you're testing Maxwell's laws. The light works because Maxwell's laws are true.

Quantum Mechanics has been rather controversial among laymen, who are fond of quoting Einstein's comment that "God does not play dice with the universe". But Quantum Mechanics is constantly being tested by at least two different large groups of engineers, and if it were wrong, we've have found out by now because many economically valuable devices wouldn't work the way theory says they should and a lot of people would want to know why. The devices developed using the laws of Quantum Mechanics are worth literally billions of dollars per year. Some of the world's largest corporations base their business on the "theory" of Quantum Mechanics. (Perhaps you've heard of "Intel"?)

Semiconductor design is heavily based on quantum theory. Most of the processes involved in producing integrated circuits rely heavily on quantum mechanics, and the devices themselves are completely based on it. If Quantum Mechanics were wrong, the Field Effect Transistor wouldn't work, and the computer I'm typing this on (which contains tens of millions of FETs) would not work. Quantum Mechanics has been used to make extremely precise predictions about how certain devices work, and it's no exaggeration to say that if they aren't right to about ten decimal places, the resulting device won't work at all, or won't work well enough to be commercially valuable. And someone's gonna want to know why.

Every computer and television and radio in existence is a scientific experiment verifying the "theory" of Quantum Mechanics. When you turn on your TV and it works the way you think it should, you've proved that Quantum Mechanics is true. It's not "just a theory".

Lasers also rely upon Quantum Mechanics. Every time you buy an object at a store using a laser scanner you're proving that Quantum Mechanics is true. Every time you play a CD or a DVD, you've proved that the "theory" of Quantum Mechanics.

Another group of engineers who are constantly testing quantum mechanics are polymer chemists. The first generation of plastics were found mostly just by messing around and trying things. The very first artificial polymer, Bakelite, was found completely by accident. But once the polymer chemists had quantum mechanics in their hands, it told them what they were doing and permitted them to do their designs deliberately. Starting about 1955, plastics started getting a whole lot better, and many modern plastics are actually superior materials to anything comparable in the natural world. (Nobody finishes furniture with Shellac anymore because polyurethane is so much better.)

No naturally occurring material has the characteristics of the plastic (polycarbonate) out of which the case of this computer was made; everything natural is considerably inferior to it. No natural material has characteristics comparable to Mylar. No natural material has the characteristics of Kevlar. These things didn't happen just by accident; they were designed and the polymer chemists who created them had a pretty good idea of what they were going to end up with becuase Quantum Mechanics figured highly in that design process. The polymer chemists finally understood what they were doing and were capable of designing artificial materials superior to anything which occurs naturally. For another example, cyanoacrylate glue, also known as "superglue". Nothing like that occurs in nature. That didn't happen by accident or luck; the polymer chemists who designed it knew what they were doing, because Quantum Mechanics showed them the way.

If Quantum mechanics was wrong, computers wouldn't work and miracle plastics wouldn't exist and superglue wouldn't stick. Quantum Mechanics is "just a theory" but it's also TRUE. And that's the point. "just a theory" is an intellectual mistake. Theories aren't "just". Theories are TRUE.

Science is of a piece; you can't pick and choose. Often the same theory can be used for multiple things which don't seem to be related. Another bugaboo of some laymen is radioactive dating; they don't like the numbers and they don't understand the process, so they refuse to accept the answers and they try to claim that the process is false.

The only problem with that is that radioactive dating is based on exactly the same theory as the work which created thermonuclear weapons. Over the course of the Cold War, the US built thousands of such bombs, in as many as fifty different configurations based on different isotopes of different elements (almost all of the relevant information about which is classified) and performed hundreds of tests which worked.

And here we come to the point: if an A-bomb is capable of exploding, then radioactive dating is correct. There's no way the two can be separated; they're based on the same theory and the same information. Either both work or neither does. There's no other choice.

And thermonuclear bombs do explode, as we know all too well. So radioactive dating is correct. It's true. It must be true; there's no way it cannot be. It cannot be separated from the theory which is used to create atomic bombs, and we know that that one is true.

Generally speaking, the way you can tell if a scientific field has become both mature and reliable is when the engineers start using it. Someone will use that scientific knowledge to try to do something useful.

And every time one does, he's testing the original science even though that's not his goal and he may not even be thinking in those kinds of terms. Because if the device or process he's designing doesn't work, he's going to ask someone why. And if it does work, it's because the underlying science was correct.

Above, I've demonstrated many such cases where very important fields of engineering are based on and constantly test various scientific "theories", and by so doing prove that they're true.

Which brings us to the "theory" of evolution. At least two different engineering fields now use the theory of evolution -- and it works. If it was "just a theory" and was wrong, the engineers wouldn't be getting the right results and they'd be letting us know. But they are getting the right results which is why they're not letting us know -- it's a non-event. Which means that the "theory" of Evolution is true, just as Quantum Mechanics is true or fluid dynamics is truel. They're testing it every day, and they're getting the right answers.

First and most obvious is genetic engineering. Genetic Engineers base their work on evolutionary theory in a hundred different ways; if evolution was wrong, the things the genetic engineers are doing wouldn't work. For instance, Genetic Engineers wouldn't be successful at producing human insulin in vats using genetically modified versions of E. Coli. But they do and because of that they prove that the theory is true.

A different and much less well known way is in Computer Science. There are certain classes of problems where you have to optimize a system and no deterministic algorithm exists to do so.

For instance, twenty years ago I worked for BBN back near the end of the days of the Arpanet. They built wide area networks using hardware we would now consider hopelessly obsolete (and indeed none of it is used any longer) but it was high tech for those days. You had store-and-forward nodes connected with 56,000 bit per second dedicated communications lines. Each node also has the ability to permit up to 64 direct connections to customer computers. High tech -- for 1982.

A typical customer then might be an airline who was trying to build a nationwide network to permit all their offices and travel agents to communicate to their central computer to set up reservations. (In fact, one of our customers did exactly that.)

How many nodes do you need? (They cost thousands of dollars each.) Where do you place them? How much cable must you buy and lay to connect them together? (Laying cable is expensive. Lots of work with backhoes.) Get this wrong and the price of the system can vary by millions of dollars.

BBN used a rather surprising way to solve this, which is known as a "genetic algorithm". You manually design your best guess as to a system which will solve the problem and enter it into a computer. The computer makes five copies, and then takes each copy and "mutates" it four times, which means that it makes a random change to it. (Add a node, remove a node, add a link, remove a link, physically move a node, etc.) This results in 25 systems. All 25 systems are then evaluated based on a heuristic (which evaluates capacity and price and a couple of other characteristics and generates a single number describing how desirable that system is).

The top five of the 25 systems are kept, then each of them is used in the next generation, along with four mutations of each, yielding again 25 systems. They are again evaluated and the top five are kept for the next generation. Iterate thousands of times, until a human tells you to stop. (Computers are very patient and never get bored. [That's because computers are morons.])

This was done by a bank of workstations which would work on it over the course of a weekend or a full week. End comes and you come in and see what the highest scoring system looks like.

The people in that group told me that two things were always true about the winning system. First, it bore no resemblance whatever to anything a human would have considered designing to solve that problem. Second, it was always far cheaper and carried far more traffic than the best efforts of the humans.

Every time.

What they were doing was implementing a synthetic form of evolution: mutation and natural selection (the two components of evolutionary theory). And it worked. Every time.

This is actually a fairly well established and commonly used solution now to problems like this, where optimization is needed and no deterministic way exists to perform the optimization. And it always works. It's a simulation of evolution, and it always works.

Generally, I don't really take any field of science seriously until some form of engineering has been based on it, if that's plausible to do. (It doesn't necessarily have to be called "engineering", but what I mean is that people start using the theory to do useful things in the real world.)

Physics passes that test, so I trust Physics. Chemistry passes that test, so I trust Chemistry. If they were wrong, a lot of engineers would be screaming.

Quantum Mechanics passes that test, so I trust Quantum Mechanics. Surprisingly enough, Relativity passes that test, because the semiconductor engineers have to take relativity into account in their designs, too. If Relativity were wrong, this computer wouldn't work. But more to the point, if Relativity were wrong, thermonuclear weapons wouldn't work. Relativity was proved rather spectacularly at Hiroshima.

As strange as it may sound, Paleontology and Geology and the theory of Plate Tectonics taken collectively pass the test. Petroleum geologists use them all as part of their analysis to try to figure out where to drill for oil. And usually the oil is where they say it is. Not merely at the map location, but also at the depth. If Paleontology or Geology or Plate Tectonics were wrong, there'd be a lot more dry wells, and a lot of angry oil companies asking questions. But they don't, because they get the right answer based on current theory. Every time I buy gas for my car, I'm testing Paleontology and Geology and the theory of Plate Tectonics, and because there's always gas in the pump, I'm proving them to be true.

And that ultimately is why I have no respect for "Theory of Creation Science". No-one is actually using it. No engineering field has been based on Creationism. No-one is using "Creation Science" to form "Creation Engineering". And until they do, I won't give it any credence. I don't give any conjecture or hypothesis or theory credence until it is sufficiently mature so that engineers start using it.

I cannot and will not take "Creation Science" seriously until I see a large body of "Creation Engineers" doing something useful -- I don't care what -- and getting the right answers in what they're doing by using "Creation Science" to make their predictions and calculations. But not only are there not a large body of such Creation Engineers, there are none at all. And based on what I know of "Creation Science" there never will be any. I can't see any way that an engineering field can be based on "Creation Science".

So I cannot place the "theory" of Creation Science on the same level as the "theory" of Evolution. Creation Science isn't a theory in the sense that scientists, mathematicians and engineers use the word. In actuality it's little more than a conjecture. And you can't base an engineering field on a conjecture, which is why there are no Creation Engineers and never will be.

Evolution is a theory and you can base an engineering field on a theory -- and we have created engineering fields based on Evolution, which to me is the ultimate proof of truth of the theory.

In my opinion, anyone who claims that "Creation Science" is a "theory" is either lying or has no knowledge of how science really operates. And anyone who says that Evolution is "just a theory" is disingenuous.

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