Travels in Time and Space – Sir Paul Callaghan

By Michael Edmonds 04/01/2013 19

“It (science) is a mixture of creative thought and detailed, often tedious, work. The best scientists are sloppy enough to allow for unexpected outcomes, but organised enough that they can find out what happened.”

This is a quote from “Travels in Time and Space” an essay written by Sir Paul Callaghan and included in the book “The Transit of Venus” which was given to me in November last year. I have just gotten around to reading it and this essay by Sir Paul is a stunner. His eloquence and ability to communicate science shines through. It is a challenge to review such a piece of writing so instead of doing so I have just included some quotes from his essay below:

“There is something extraordinary about science that explains why it’s very discovery was, in Einstein’s words, ‘astonishing’. It is an aspect that is central to those of us who both practice science and teach it. And it is this: science is a system of discovering knowledge that defies common science. It is, after all, common sense that the sun goes around the Earth. It is common sense to say that objects need forces in order to move. It is common sense to say that continents don’t move and that animal species are immutable. It is common sense to say if I throw a coin four times it is more likely I will get heads, tails, heads, tails than heads, heads, heads, heads. Yet all these common sense ideas are wrong.”

“The utility, however, is not the reason for the voyage of science. We have undertaken the journey because one of our deepest human yearnings is to know, understand and reach out to the universe around us, and to place ourselves in its context.

“As we peel back each layer of understanding, science appears to draw us on in ever-expanding complexity, new measurement tools driven by new technologies driven by new science, in an unpredictable, endless cycle.”

“The human race has no divine right to continue to survive. But I want us to live in a world where we are optimistic enough to believe we will survive, that life will continue and we will hold fast to our humanity in the process. Science gives us no moral insight and advances no ethical principles; there are truths other than scientific truths, and in matters of ethics or human values the scientist’s opinion holds no higher status. But I believe science presents an abiding and self-consistent way of looking at the world, something solid, real and truly universal. That, in itself, is of inestimable value.”

If you can get hold of this essay it is certainly worth a read.



19 Responses to “Travels in Time and Space – Sir Paul Callaghan”

  • “Science gives us no moral insight and advances no ethical principles”, says Sir Paul. I’m not sure this is strictly correct. Science can inform us of many of the things that are good for humans and good for humanity. For example pro social, cooperative and altruistic behaviour is good for human communities and derivatively human individuals. It would be hard to deny that is a human good. We don’t need a spooky concept of morality or ethics to derive these truths, iterative game theory within non zero parameters and the social sciences will do the trick. Furthermore evolutionary theory explains how we are more likely to thrive in peaceful ordered communities and not so otherwise.

  • Stuart, I agree with you that science can inform ethics and morality, and I suspect Sir Paul might have agreed with that too. But, for me ethics and and morality are something separate from science.

  • One interesting approach is to consider G. E. Moore’s investigation of “good”. He argued that because we can always ask the question “is it good?” of any prescription of “the good”, it must be an irreducible quality. This has the effect of investing it with occult qualities which Mackie argued is ontologically queer and unacceptable.
    I simply reject all occult properties which reduces “the good” to “good for x, y, z”. What is good for humanity and derivatively human individuals, is not necessarily the same as what is good for hedgehogs. So there is no occult quality that is not circumstantial. That makes “the good” empirical and accessible to the systematic inquiry we call science.
    I don’t enlarge science to embrace occult qualities, I reject occult qualities as a consistent materialist to make “the good” tractable.
    It wasn’t science that discredited this approach in the 20th Century, it was pseudoscience. Modernity separated fact and value. Pre modern societies didn’t because everything was invested with value. Communities that treated good for situations as “good”, i.e. normatively motivating, flourished. This is adaption at the group and cultural level. It’s an evolutionary psycho/social thesis that permits human societies to be viable in a vast range of environments and circumstances. Some cultures get it right, some don’t and fall by the wayside. Each culture with its repertoire of norms is an experiment. Time and successful continuity determines whether “the good” is good.
    Provocative I know but it’s worth thinking about.

  • Modern examples of failure, what we thought was good but turned out not to be, would be the over exploitation of resources the leads to Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, uncontrolled reproduction, anthropogenic global warming and the failure of neoclassical economic theory illustrated by Steve Keen at Western Sydney and Americans like Stiglitz.
    All based on radical individualism for a creature that is irreducibly social and evidently flourishes by cooperating where possible.

  • Not only cooperates with other humans but cooperates with nature by recognising humanity like the earth is not the centre of everything. A Copernican revolution is required in our approach to each other and to the world.

  • I believe the conceptualisation of values as inhabitants of some sort of platonic spirit world entails rather than excludes absolutism. It means they are “above” the rules of rational empirical investigation. This in fact encourages dogmatic thinking. It is a mistake to assume that science leads to absolutism. Good science is tentative, probabilistic and fallibalistic in its MO.
    Truth appropriately formulated is absolute, but truth claims are always tentative.
    “x” is true if and only if x is true.

    • Stuart
      This is my (rather simple) take on ethics and morality. Both instruct us on how to live “good” lives. Now I know the term “good” will frustrate some people so I will try and explain what that means to me – A “good” society is one where people live happy, constructive and productive lives. Science, particularly the social sciences, is already helping us understand how to do this, e.g. science informing ethics and morality.
      Ethics and morality tend to evolve as we better understand our world, this is one of the reasons that I think religion has very little value in terms of morality and ethics – most religions are stagnant in their beliefs and behaviours. (Though some of the underlying philosophies within various religions certainly have merit). The second reason I think religion has little value in ethics and merits is that most believe their “morality” is derived from divine guidance not based on some good (and some not so good) ideas produced by our ancestors to maintain social cohesion AT THE TIME these ideas were forms. Our society has changed over the millenia, hence ethics and morality have evolved too, and will continue to evolve.
      I think Sam Harris’s “The Moral Landscape” makes a start understanding how morals and ethics can be informed by science, and I find some of his arguments very convincing. But I think more work has to be done to develop these ideas and to convince a public, many of whom still relate morality to religion, that science has a role to play in ethics and morality.
      Your points about nature are a good example about how ethics need to evolve as science reveals more to us about the world around us. Science has already taught us how our health and welfare is interconnected with the health and welfare of this planet. It has also taught us about how animals sense the world and how ethical treatment of animals can relate to our ethical treatment of our fellow human beings.

      • The other thing that science brings to ethics and morality is that it combats cultural relativism, and cultural relativism can lead to very dangerous thinking.

  • Hi Michael,
    Can you please give more details of the book this essay is published in- I am very interested in getting hold of a copy and reading the whole essay. Thank you

    • Helen
      The book is by awa press and was first published in 2007. The main title is “The Transit of Venus” with the subtitle “How a rare astronomical alignment changed the world”. The first page also states that it is “the collected lectures of the Royal society of New Zealand Transit of Venus series broadcast on Radio New Zealand” so perhaps the recordings are still around on line?
      ISBN number is 978-0-9582629-7-2
      I hope that helps

  • Cultural diversity, at least in its outward forms, are the result of various interactions of history, circumstances and power structures. But when you dig deeper the norms persist to the extent they deliver the synergies of coordinated and to some extent cooperative enterprise. I think all societies have that in common. When you you look at ethnographies of remote tribal cultures, many of their cultural norms are formulated as supernatural narratives, foundation myths, incest taboos etc. These clearly deliver the goods in terms of conserving order and strategic resources. This makes sense in largely pre literate societies that have not evolved a science culture. That requires considerable social and cultural capital. This folk knowledge though is pretty effective in the preservation and transmission of social rules. Our own western traditions are known to have pre literate origins. Our children know many of them before their formal education even starts. The current cutting edge in this area is the work science is doing in demonstrating how social dynamics and iterative social interaction spontaneously evolves protocols. This is the cultural side of the equation but it is grounded in our biology and social psychology as David Sloan Wilson, E. O. Wilson, Sam Harris, Yochai Benkler, Howard Bloom and Martin Nowick have brilliantly explained. As this work proceeds, the apparent independence of values, and with it “Hume’s problem” (no “ought” from “is”), seems to be increasingly challenged or solved. But to do it “ought” as an independent absolute may have to be reformulated as a conditional psycho-social thesis, a condition for social participation. Interestingly, social exclusion or ostracising in ancient times amounted to a death sentence and we know what modern social isolation does to people. Our very identities are shaped by social participation. It’s a conditional argument that comes close to necessity as Martin Niwick argues which raises interesting logical issues. In other words as Aristotle, that great father of the a posterori argued all those years ago, it is our destiny as social animals to be rule formulating and rule following critters and as Nowick shows in “Supercooperators”, all structure in the universe is rule governed.

  • Ethics and Einstein shouldn’t be mentioned on the same page.
    Science has the morals of a prostitute, yes the highest bidder wins the prize.
    Until modern theoretical science unites with practical science and starts to explore more of natures phenomenon, it will be just corporate science, and natures mysteries will remain that.
    Want true science and not maths with theories, electricity is where it is at.
    Space is electric and plasma. Plasma is worthy of our attention.

    • Derek,
      “Science has the morals of a prostitute”

      How easily you dismiss the dedication and hard work of so many scientists. Such comments are not only rude, they demonstrate a very biased and inaccurate view of science.

  • Well you just have to look at science history last century to see the truth in my statement. The great genius was said to be Einstein (his theories made mainstream) and he invented a fridge that never made it to market. Yet Tesla who lived for science was ignored and shelved but his inventions propelled our civilisation forward (his theories called pseudo science).
    I can see this it is clear to me, perhaps you have been blinded.
    Still we consume oil and complain about global warming, prostitution at the highest level.

    • Derek,

      You stated that “science has the morals of a prostitute” a very wide sweeping generalised statement which seems to be based on your obsession with Tesla. Science, in the hands of many dedicated scientists who also have “lived for science” have provided cures and treatments for diseases, enhanced our agricultural outputs, developed incredible communication systems and have thus far gotten astronauts to the moon and back. Not to mention providing us with a better understanding of the world around us. Your crude “science has the morals of a prostitute” comment does these people a great injustice.
      Perhaps you should broaden your science reading to explore the great scientific breakthroughs in fields other than physics, for example, chemistry, biology, astronomy, medicine, agriculture, engineering?

      “Still we consume oil and complain about global warming, prostitution at the highest level.”

      Why do you think this is science’s fault? For many decades some scientists have demonstrated the issues around global warming, while others have been hard at work developing new technologies – wind power, solar power, hydro power, for example. Our continued consumption of oil is a political issue, not one of science.

  • Ok you are right Michael I was talking about physics and not the other fields. One of my concerns is the omission of the Ether in theoretical physics. Also the great minds that have been totally ignored and sidelined by political agendas. People like Nikola Tesla, Henry Moray, Howard Johnston, Viktor Schauberger, Joseph Papp, who have provided working solutions based around etheritical science. Also the great work being done by JLN labs with the asymmetrical plasma experiments (cold fusion ,google them you will find repeatable experiments). Denial by mainstream skeptics turns the young away from solutions and is the reason I made the comment.
    You are also right about our consumption of fossil fuels being political.

Site Meter