Sunday, November 23, 2008

Progress of Science

Science is hard and in general, get two scientists together and you'll have three opinions. But slowly and unsteadily, a consensus emerges, and the human race gets a little wiser.

None of this is news anymore, but I wanted to recognize some really cool results that have come out recently.

One is "just" a simulation -- but a good simulation is a lot of work. This one shows that the ever-victorious Standard Model correctly predicts the mass of atoms within 5% of their measured values. The other 5% is a mystery that those expensive particle collider experiments are designed to solve. The 95% is a pretty impressive triumph for an increasingly awesome theory.

From a theoretical result about very small scales we move to an observational result about very large scales. For the first time, astronomers have succeeded in takingpictures of planets in other solar systems. They're not the greatest looking pictures, but considering that any picture like this was considered impossible a few years ago, I think they're beautiful. We know now, in a visual, almost visceral way, that our solar system is one of many.

I also think it's worth talking about the fact that India's first unmanned lunar spacecraft has successfully entered orbit around the moon. The more active space programs, the better, as far as I'm concerned. NASA desperately needs some competition. And it is a hopeful sign of progress for the human race as a whole when the so-called Western and Non-Western worlds are each capable of and committed to science on this scale. Space exploration should be a human activity, not limited to a specific culture. Practically all science fiction fans agree.

A couple of more links I want to throw in while I'm linking:

Memoirs of a Space Engineer gives a couple of very real, very entertaining anecdotes about the essence of engineering: problem solving.

And The Necessity of Mathematics is an essay by Science Blogger Blake Stacey about the role mathematics plays in science, with some insightful examples that feel like little revelations in themselves.

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