Monday, 24 September 2012

An apologia for the 'unreasonable' effectiveness of scientific principles

There really are people out there who think science is like any other belief system (ie, usually presented as in 'opposition' to christianity). This is to misunderstand science and off-handedly dismiss its role in the advancements in human knowledge over the three hundred years or so.

There is a wonderful article in the September 2012 issue of Popular Science magazine that features high school inventors that show why science isn't so much a belief system but a framework for understanding how the world works by way of scientific principles open to anyone willing to put in the time to try and understand them.

Among the ten high school students featured in the article, there is 15 year old Jack Andraka of North County High School, Glen Burnie, Maryland who invented an early cancer screening method:

Jack Andraka's pancreatic cancer test is 168 times faster and 400 times more sensitive than current diagnostics. To create his test, he coats filter paper with carbon nanotubes and antibodies. Mesothelin, a protein over-expressed in the blood and urine of pancreatic-cancer patients, binds to the antibodies. That pushes the nanotubes apart and raises the electrical resistance, which doctors can then measure. (p. 54, Popular Science, September 2012)

I'm absolutely sure that Jack, like the others featured in the article, is an examplar of a child prodigy, but his knowledge is not something random, mysterious or even a miracle. He's been able to put together materials, based on their chemical and structural properties (things he took the time to find out), and came up with a better method of diagnosis for pancreatic cancer.

Science is not a belief system like religions are; it is a way of understanding the workings of physical reality whose principles are simple and elegant enough for children to come to understand.


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