Gravity and the Scientific Method

Posted on April 18, 2011  Comments (4)

One of the topics I return to repeatedly is the scientific method – theories must to tested. As evidence mounts that new ideas do a good job of explaining theories they become more accepted. But they continue to be tested in new ways as the ideas are extended and ramification are explored. And science progress means that old conventions can be overturned as new evidence is gathered.

Science is not about current beliefs. Science is about seeking knowledge. If the search for knowledge leads to evidence that old ideas were wrong those ideas are overturned. Since people are involved that process isn’t as clean as it sounds above. People get comfortable with beliefs. They build careers on expanding those beliefs. Most are uncomfortable when they are challenged and don’t accept new ideas even when the evidence mounts. But some do accept the new ideas. Some challenge the new ideas by running experiments. And some of those prove the new ideas faulty. Some become convinced of the new ideas as the results of their experiments make the new ideas seem more sensible (instead of getting the results they expected).

Building the body of scientific knowledge is not nearly as clean and simple as most people think. It isn’t a simple process, what is the underlying truth can be debatable. But the beauty of the scientific process is how it helps us overcome our biases and provide evidence to support the theories we support. The scientific method (combined with our human involvement) doesn’t mean new ideas are accepted easily but it does mean new ideas compete on the basis of evidence not just the power of those that hold the beliefs.

Is gravity not actually a force? Forcing theory to meet experiments

Dutch theoretical physicist Erik Verlinde published a manuscript to the arXiv that purports to explain why science cannot reconcile all four fundamental forces. According to him, it is simple: “gravity doesn’t exist.”

Black hole thermodynamics was worked on extensively in the 1970s. It’s needed in order to reconcile the second law of thermodynamics with the idea of a black hole event horizon. To do this, one has to admit that a black hole must have finite, non-zero entropy. If a black hole has zero entropy, then throwing mass into a black hole would violate the second law of thermodynamics, as the sum total entropy of the universe would decrease by the amount of entropy contained within the mass.

This also demands that, oddly, black holes cannot be purely black. If something has a non-zero entropy, then it must also have a non-zero temperature. This temperature is the temperature of the Hawking radiation that is given off due to the quantum nature of the black hole itself.

Clearly, one paper making extraordinary claims will not be taken as fact until others can replicate the work, or in the case of a theoretical paper such as this, verify it with experimental evidence. A paper published in a recent edition of Physical Review D has attempted to do just that.

Dr. Archil Kobakhidze, a research fellow in theoretical particle physics at the University of Melbourne, points to recent results that may undermine Verlinde’s ideas. Kobakhidze acknowledges that Verlinde’s work successfully reproduces gravity on the Newtonian scale, and possibly in the more general relativistic sense, but it must also work at the quantum level as well, or it’s not going to change modern physics.

This is how science works. Ideas are proposed, they are backed up, they are shot down. Over time, it would not surprise me to see Verlinde defend his work. Perhaps Kobakhidze’s derivation and its extension to the microscopic case is incorrect. Perhaps Verlinde will revisit his original work to revise how microscopic cases should be handled. Whatever happens, science will move on; time, further arguments, and experiments will be the ultimate arbiter of which drastically different view of reality is correct.

New ideas require evidence to support them. Radical new ideas require more evidence to overcome both the mass of evidence behind the previous theories and our human psychology (we are less comfortable accepting radical new ideas).

Related: Statistical Errors in Medical StudiesTest it Out, Experiment by They Might Be GiantsMedical Study Integrity (or Lack Thereof)Correlation is Not – the Protein Folding GameMore Mysterious Space Phenomenon

4 Responses to “Gravity and the Scientific Method”

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    August 15th, 2011 @ 6:59 am

    I love the advances we have made using our understanding of science and engineering, like the internet, air conditioning and antibiotics. I also love the discussion of research where we really have only educated guesses about what the scientific inquiry process is telling us about the way things are…

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