BBC Beautiful Minds – Jocelyn Bell Burnell on Truth and Understanding


Through history, we
have seen some theories
that have stood the test of time
well and some that disappeared quickly.
A theory that stands the test
of time well will have been prodded
and poked and battered and
examined from every angle and still stands up.
and Einstein’s theory of
relativity is one of those that’s been subject
to a lot of scrutiny, but it
was only following the discovery
of pulsars that it was possible
to test Einstein’s ideas about gravity.
Einstein’s theories predict
that where you have a pair of stars
orbiting each other, this
system produces a new kind of radiation,
gravitational
radiation, or gravitational waves,
and the effects of these waves
being produced are that the two stars move
closer together and go round
faster, which sends out more gravity waves,
so they move closer
together and go round even faster,
and they actually end up merging.
With the first pulsar
discovered in one of these binary systems,
they’ve been able to track the
orbit and they have seen that the stars
do move closer together, in
exactly the manner predicted by Einstein.
So does that mean that
Einstein’s been proved right, then?
The current situation is
that the pulsar astronomers have
shown that Einstein’s theory
of gravity is right to about 0.02%.
That’s not the same as
saying it’s true though, is it?
Scientists should never claim
that something is absolutely true.
You should never claim
perfect or total or 100%,
because you never, ever get there.
Is science therefore
not a quest for the truth?
Science is a quest for understanding.
A search for truth seems
to me to be full of pitfalls.
We all have different understandings
of what truth is, and we each
believe or we’re in danger of each believing
that our truth is the
one and only absolute truth,
which is why I say
it’s full of pitfalls.
I think a search for understanding
is much more serviceable to humankind
and is a sufficiently
ambitious goal of itself.

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