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Bragg Prize Runner-up: On Certainty

Bragg Prize

Congratulations to Jasmin Wu, for being a runner-up 2022 UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing

In her response to the theme “What is Science and Why Do We Need It?”, high school student Jasmin Wu (Year 10, St George Girls High School, Kogarah) explores the certainty of science – and its effect on contemporary STEM fields.

“A skilled exploration, emphasising the importance of scientific endeavour,” says Bragg Prize Judge and editor of The Best Australian Science Writing 2022 Ivy Shih.

Read Jasmin’s full essay below.

“Imagine being embroiled in a tense debate against a flat-Earther. No matter which angle you take to demolish their argument – be it observing the Earth’s round shadow on the moon or showcasing NASA’s photos – your flat-Earther refuses to surrender. Finally, you say, ‘Well, the scientists agree that Earth is spherical’.

“They reply, ‘They cannot be 100 per cent certain’. This remark gives you pause: is it possible to achieve absolute certainty in science? No.

“To understand why, let us examine the nature of science itself. It’s a system of theories that try to explain the phenomena in our universe. Each theory predicts an observation; for example, classical physics predicts time to pass at the same rate for everyone while particles have defined velocities or locations. When a theory aligns with observations in nature, it is further tested and refined in a process that was called normal science’ by science philosopher Thomas Kuhn.

“Eventually ‘anomalies’, which are observations that contradict the theory, will accumulate to a stage called ‘paradigm-shift’, where it is replaced. Thanks to these revolutionary shifts, time is now understood to be relative, and we’ve realised that an electron can actually occupy different locations as a wave. What spurred these changes?

“It is (ironically) called ‘falsification’, the task of proving a theory wrong. The philosopher Karl Popper argued this was the path to scientific progress. After disproving a model, it is dispensed in favour of ‘whatever else works’ – like an elimination game. To illustrate, consider the hypothesis that all geckos have sticky feet. You test it by capturing a thousand geckos, discovering each possesses sticky feet. This experiment, however, ignores the possible existence of wild geckos with non-sticky feet. If we resorted instead to falsification (discovering a gecko with non-sticky feet) the state of our hypothesis is known. Hence, scientists don’t prove but rather disprove models. Although Albert Einstein’s model of gravity as the curvature of spacetime has survived all tests so far (including the detection of gravitational waves in 2015), the next experiment could disprove him. Therefore, regardless of the confirming evidence, we can never fully ascertain if a scientific idea is true.

“Here, you may object, ‘Neither can we affirm ghosts are real or that star signs define your
destiny. Then by the principle of falsification, these superstitions count as science! Falsification is therefore absurd’.

“Yet the distinction between science (such as astronomy) and pseudoscience (such as astrology) constitutes the very core of falsification. If a theory can’t be tested using contemporary technology, it cannot be disproven. Nor is it proven, so the theory is left suspended in a state of conjecture. Since it has no potential to reveal knowledge about the reality (remember, it is unfalsifiable), the theory is not science. For instance, Sigmund Freud’s hypothesis – that your desire to eat dessert is caused by the unconscious – is termed ‘pseudoscience’ since it is not testable. Until we devise ways to test it and inventions like wormholes or black-hole portals, these unfalsifiable theories belong to sci-fi enthusiasts. Falsification still stands.

“The argument against absolute certainty continues – science is a human construct. Human
faculties are responsible for each observation, each experimental design, each interpretation of data and each conclusion. The principles of any scientific theory are empirical: that is, they are based on our experience. For example, VSEPR theory predicts a molecule’s shape based on our observation that electrons tend to repel each other. Even the statement ‘If Y changed after X changed, then X caused Y’ is logic conceived not by the universe but by the human brain. To be certain of knowledge, we must escape the bubble of imperfect human senses. This has been attempted through telescopes to see stars and microscopes to see cells, yet there is a second barrier.

“Picture a four-dimensional object. Could you do it? You can’t, which demonstrates the limitations of human thinking. There may be hidden realities which three-dimensional beings cannot detect. Since science rests upon a flawed human perspective, absolute certainty is for dreamers.

“What, then, is the point of science? No, it isn’t to send students to sleep.
Science is applicable. From it, we’ve engineered bacteria-killing phages, computers with 45-
nanometer wide chips and Voyager 1 that is now 23 billion kilometres away in interstellar space.

“From the research of Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and Paul Dirac, the concept of a quantum computer was developed.

“Science also gifts the individual with control. It guides personal decisions such as using weather models to assess the need of umbrellas today or if radiation is the best cancer treatment.

“Additionally, good scientific theories predict events that mirror reality. For instance, projectile motion equations can fortune-tell the velocity of a falling object 10 seconds later.

“Furthermore, science leads us from our fleeting, chaotic, daily life closer to a system of timeless rules that operate a universe greater than ourselves.

“Certainty is impossible in science, but it remains a much-revered explanation of our world.”

For the 2022 UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing we asked Australian high school students to enter 800-word essays responding to the 2022 theme “What is Science and Why Do We Need It?”

Read the other winning entries:

  • 2022 winner Olivia Campbell, (Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Melbourne), explores the important role of viral science in our ever-changing world. Read her essay in full here.
  • Runner-up Kaya Kimla (Kirrawee High School, Sydney), looks at the cultural and scientific significance of Indigenous science practices. Read her essay in full here.

READ MORE:

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Love science and writing? The UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing opens for entries April 29.