Build a Better Tool

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One of the biggest evolutionary advantages that humans possess is our ability to use tools. Of course, we’re not the only species to use tools and in some cases, we’re not even the most dexterous with the tools that we do use. However, it seems to the be the case that we are alone in all the animal kingdom when it comes to the extent to which we refine our tools. The ability to use old tools to make better tools is one of our key advantages.

We don’t have claws and teeth worth a damn, so we make knives, swords, and guns. We’re not, on the average, as strong as a tiger, but our weapons and machines make us stronger. Nietzsche said that this was our capacity for simulation (a.k.a. lying). But that’s not what I wanted to talk about today. I merely wanted to illustrate how our tool making and, in particular, our tool refining, is responsible for so much of what we know about the world and, by proxy, what we are able to do in the world.

Imagine what it must have been like to be Galileo. The current accepted cosmic model shows Earth at the center of everything. the vast majority of the sky is utterly stationary (the stars), but there are a few objects that move. The Greeks compared them with the gods. The Romans called one in particular Jupiter. There’s Galileo, using a telescope that he built, taking a gander at Jupiter. What does he see? Three tiny “stars” dwarfed by Jupiter but very close to it. Imagine what the next few days must have been like for him? Night after night, observing these three stars and seeing them move and even disappear. How would you explain it, if everything is supposed to orbit the Earth? Imagine how his heart raced when the only logical hypothesis formed in his mind. Heresy, but true! They orbit Jupiter!

The reason that the Copernican Model of the solar system did not meet immediate success is the fact that his observations were based on measurements only infinitesimally better than those that confirmed a geo-centric solar system. His conclusion was radical because it flew in the face of everything that the Church held dear, but also because it was actually only a little bit better. For it to be politically viable, for the Church to accept it (no matter if scientists agree), you need a damn sight more positive proof than that. Look at the theory of evolution. That’s been demonstrated time and again, but it’s not proof enough for religious folks. It seems that often what it takes is one piece of irrefutable evidence to sway the skeptical. A smoking gun.

The problem, of course, is that there isn’t always one of those just lying around. Just ask a forensics expert.

Instead, what science relies on is a slow and steady progression, a refinement of technique and technology. The tools become incrementally more sophisticated, the measurements just a tiny bit more accurate and over time we are able to construct a picture of what the universe looks like. Galileo saw with this telescope things that we had no way of knowing existed. They might as well not have existed until Galileo spotted them. Not only that, but he was able to make more accurate observations in support of the Copernican Model than Copernicus which is why he, and not Copernicus, is the “Father of Modern Science.”

The strides he made in observational astronomy were monumental. But they pale in comparison to the things we’ve been seeing lately. Two stories caught my eye today. The first is directly related to this idea of incrementally more sensitive equipment. We’ve mapped the background radiation from our perspective. We have an idea of what the universe looked like when it was very, very young. But what will we see if we increase the resolution? As it turns out, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation might have a fingerprint of sorts embedded in it. Ripples in space-time, kicked up during the Big Bang, might have left a residual polarization in the cosmic radiation. We haven’t had tools sensitive enough to detect this hypothesized “B-mode polarization” yet, but perhaps now we do. And it will change, ever so slightly, our understanding of the early (the first trillionth of a trillionth of a second) universe.

Also on the micro scale, we have accurately measured the atomic mass of some isotopes of certain rare elements. More accurately, scientists have measured the nuclear masses of four specific rare elements. Rare elements like these are difficult to measure because they are rare and because when you do finally get your hands on some, they decay much too quickly to get accurate measurements. But through the use of our ability to continually refine our techniques and build more and more sensitive equipment, scientists have done what might have seemed impossible in Galileo’s day.

I like the quote from the project lead: “As an analogue, think of a scale precise enough to see how your weight changes when you pluck just one hair out of your head.”

How are such subtle changes in mass important? It depends on who you are. The thing is, in the world of science, smaller and smaller changes have bigger and bigger consequences. If some fundamental universal constant–for example, c, the speed of light–were different be as little as a tenth of a percent, the entire nature of the universe would be different. But it also has intrinsic value. The ability to accurately model the universe, to really see, in as much detail as possible, the mechanisms that power the universe, is remarkable and, when it comes down to it, it’s really all that sets us apart from chimps.

Discuss.

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  1. Pingback: Spin One Half » Scientia Pro Publica: Blog Carnival #4

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