Science > Written History > Fortune Telling

One of the reasons I love science is that it actually does allow us to look into the past and future, beyond our existence in the present.  Written history gives us a perspective of a person who was around before any human currently living on Earth, and allows us to piece together the history of our culture.  This is very important, so no disrespect to historians and their work.  Much disrespect to fortune telling though.  It’s a waste of energy involving a person who fishes for information for a living.  But let’s talk about Science.

Alpha Centauri and Omega Centauri in a single image. Credit: Johannes Schedler (Panther Observatory)

Since we just passed Canada Day and America’s Independence Day, I’ll use fireworks as an example of how this works.  Let’s say you’re walking along, and come across a firework in the ground.  How could you tell if it had gone off?  You might look for burn marks or ashes, look for an intact fuse, and you might see if it was placed firmly in the ground.  You would do this because you’ve seen fireworks before and you know how they behave.

If the marks are there, you could probably say with confidence that it has gone off.  If it was still warm or if there were hot glowing bits of paper, you might conclude that it went off recently.  You can determine its history by investigating it’s current state and combining that with knowledge of its behavior.  This is how science deciphers the past.

Scientists can look at the rings of a tree and see how long it has lived for, and by comparing the distance between a set of rings they can identify which years were good for growth and which were not.  We can look at layers of rock in the Earth and determine how the land masses have shifted, and how the local environment has changed over hundreds of millions of years.

For the future, lets go back to the fireworks analogy.  Say your favourite firework was one called a ‘supernova.’  You’ve bought many supernovas and watched them go off, producing pretty much the same result each time.  Today you go and buy another one, noticing that it’s the same size as all the others you’ve seen, made by the same company as always, with the same art on the outer covering.  Based on this knowledge and experience, you know with a solid degree of certainty how the ‘supernova’ will go off.  You can also write down your findings and give them to someone else, and even if they’ve never seen the firework go off before, they could predict what will happen based on your notes.

Science works the same way.  We have seen real exploding stars, real supernova explosions, and we can usually tell when a star is about to explode as one.  We understand the way things work in nature, and combine our understanding from a wide variety of disciplines, applying them to a certain situation in order to create a prediction about the future.  The prediction may not be perfectly accurate, but if it’s close, we can make adjustments to our theory in order to make our next prediction more accurate.

Using these principles, our species, having only been around for 100,000 years or so, and having only 5,000 years of the written word behind us, has been able to decipher the history of our species, the Earth, and the 13.7 Billion years of the Universe’s existence.  We have been able to determine the mathematical laws of nature, and we have used them to make predictions far into the future.

Our predictions aren’t always 100% correct, and we certainly can’t tell you if you’re going to have a bad day or win the lottery.  But neither can the fortune teller, though they claim they can. Unlike the fortune teller, science doesn’t peddle in bullshit.

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