At the top of a hill, there is an apple tree. The apple tree, throughout its existence upon that hilltop, produces multitudes of apples, each containing a little piece of its creator’s identity within its core. Ethylene is then produced when an apple begins to ripen, which assembles enzymes that break down the cell walls in its stem. With a weaker stem, the apple falls and rolls away from its family in hopes of starting its own.

Now, whether or not Sir Isaac Newton actually did get hit on the head by an apple, he did eventually describe the apple’s action. Newton’s idea is that an apple falls because of gravity’s effect, but “fall” is an interesting term worth noting. What does it really mean?

We say an object falls when it moves from a higher level to a lower level freely and without control. If we consider our apple, we find that this is a good word to use for its action.

But what if I don’t like the word “fall?” I have nothing against it; but, let’s say I wanted to use another word: accelerate. I say that the apple does not fall. It accelerates downward instead. My reasoning is that I notice the apple is actually not without control as it appears to be; rather, it’s fully controlled by a force that accelerates it downward. Conveniently, I’m going to name this force “gravity.”

Perhaps someone may come back to ruin my brilliant idea and propose instead that the apple does, in fact, fall. They may reach this conclusion by claiming that massive objects bend the possible paths (commonly known as “space”) around them. The apple simply follows one of the new paths; precisely the one that requires the least effort. Without control, the apple thus falls.

Maybe, at some point in the future, my hero will come along to defend my gravity-is-a-force idea from this gravity-is-curvature idea (obvious disclaimer: these aren’t my ideas; I’m just using them as examples. They are Newton’s and Albert Einstein’s, respectively). But, this isn’t the point, is it?

The point is: given infinite time, one will always make a discovery that rewrites the last. Aristotle was trumped by Isaac Newton, Newton by Albert Einstein, and Einstein—at one point—by Niels Bohr. At some point in the future, there will be a new theory that falsifies the last and usurps its throne of truth.

. . . Which begs the question: how can someone be right if the next person, at some point, will surely “disprove” that someone’s discovery with a new one? How can any theory be true for this reason?

Good one. So, now what? Is every single physicist and will-be-physicist wrong because of this?

Not exactly.

Throughout our debates of which ideas or hypotheses are correct, we forget science’s own limitations. Science models reality, attempting only to describe it; but, it does not have the power to mirror reality as it is. We are blinded by our search for what is; yet, we search for “what is” in a model that’s helpful in searching for “what can be,” or more precisely, “what may be described.”

If we look at our apple again, all the ideas I mentioned describe the same, single action. The only significant difference is that the description becomes more accurate the further into the future we look. Granted, the two theories I’ve mentioned are vastly different ideas: one calls it a force—a proactive entity—and the other calls it the curvature of spacetime by a massive object—a reactive entity—but, despite the fundamental differences, they both describe the same action with nearly the same accuracy. No matter; in the future, these ideas still will be revised to fit progressively more extreme tests and observations. The revisions themselves may be subtle or they may even completely discredit and replace the original idea.

If this is always the case, which it is, then we cannot claim something as reality using science. It must be clear that the theories of physics are nothing more than a description of the mechanics of something that is innately unknown. In our example, it could very well be that gravity is indeed a force; yet, we describe it as the curvature of spacetime. Perhaps it’s the other way around. It could even be that gravity is neither of these and is something that we have not and will never conceptualize. Yet, despite it all, our descriptions and predictions involving gravity remain evermore precise.

Science is powerful for this reason. It does not matter what reality is; but rather, its implications on our observable universe. We can model anything without truly knowing exactly what that thing really is, and still make near-perfect predictions. This is the capability of science.

Specifically in the case of finding the truth of what is in reality: “Every Single Physicist is Wrong,” yes.

But, in contrast to the case of science and understanding, how might our observable universe works, this is meaningless. Understanding what may be true and what works, instead of simply knowing what reality is composed of, may be argued to have more meaning for humanity’s curiosity.

I will say again that science models the universe in an attempt to describe its mechanics; it does not mirror the very fabric of reality and expose its components as they inherently are. Likewise, the theories of physics that model the universe give descriptions that are of the highest precision, despite the intrinsic reality of the entity being described remaining unknown to science.

It’s for this reason that every single physicist is not “wrong,” but rather, correct.


Photo Credit: Bill Bradshaw


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