Posted in Science & Nature

Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword

If an irresistible force was to act on an immovable object, what would happen?

A mathematician named Mike Alder decided to approach this philosophical paradox from a scientific perspective. He proposed a simple answer to the paradox – it is not worth discussing.

Alder argued that for an object to be immovable, all known forces must be acted upon it with no effect. Similarly, an irresistible force can only be called that if literally no object could ignore its effects. Therefore, the two cannot possibly exist in the same universe, meaning that the paradox is pointless. As Alder would put it – “Language is bigger than the universe”, as it allows us to formulate impossible scenarios that ignore the rules of science.

The implication of this line of thought is that if you cannot tangibly test an idea, then there is no point in arguing it as it would not add to scientific knowledge. This is a purist view of the fundamental principle of science that is falsifiability.

Sir Isaac Newton was one of the earliest pioneers of this philosophy. He wrote: “hypotheses non fingo”, or “I do not engage in untestable speculation”. Newton challenged the classical school of philosophy, where one would challenge and develop an idea through thought, discussion and argument. When faced with philosophical questions such as whether animals had rights, he would ask: “What set of observations do you consider would establish the truth of your claim?”.

Alder named his principle – that one should only discuss matters that can be tested and verified – Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword (as he believed all good principles should have sexy names). This is a play on Occam’s razor, the philosophical principle that once you shave away the complexities, the simplest truth remains. Alder believed that Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword was a much sharper and more dangerous tool than Occam’s Razor, meaning that as useful as it is, it should be used with care.

Of course, this is an extreme school of philosophy that is only upheld by a group of philosophers who we now call “scientists”. There are still many intangible issues that could only be solved through thinking, such as ethics. Thus, the battle between scientists and philosophers continue.

Posted in Science & Nature

Cow Modelling

There is a farmer who is unhappy with the milk production from his dairy farm. To rectify this, he writes to the local university asking for advice. A theoretical physicist responds to the request and visits the farm. He then takes many measurements such as the size of the cow and proceeds to do some calculations. After finishing all of this, he tells the farmer: “I have a solution, but it only works for spherical cows in a vacuum.”

The point of the joke is that in science, models are frequently used to simplify reality. Because there are infinite amounts of variables, it is impossible to predict anything unless the scenario is simplified through certain assumptions and removal of factors. For example, many physics principles make assumptions such as not accounting for air resistance. Occam’s razor states that if you shave away all the complex details, the simplest answer remains. But perhaps we oversimplify some things?

Posted in Philosophy

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s razor is a philosophical concept that dictates that all other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best. It is useful in many situations, especially the sciences, where it allows one to find an answer without being distracted by the numerous variables.

In medicine, Occam’s razor is extremely useful in differential diagnosis where a doctor may easily prioritise the possible diagnoses and save precious time. Dr Greg House in House MD shows demonstrates just this.

In physics, models showing movement of objects for calculation of force required ignores real factors such as friction or centrifugal force to simplify the situation, showing only the forces being observed. This type of modelling is used in many subjects, where only factors being observed are taken into consideration to find a correlation, or some form of desired truth. 

Although some may suggest that this method does not give the “truth” as vital information may be cut out in the process, it can also be argued that one cannot see the truth unless the “distractions” are removed. This is the fundamental basis of the Occam’s razor, where complexities are “shaved” away until truth is left. A quote by the musician Daniel Jacobs, “The truth of simplicity is camouflaged by the complexity of lies just as a tangle of lies will mask the simplicity of truth,” also supports this idea.