Friday, July 10, 2015

Experiment and Theory on the Way to Asymptotic Technology

When scientists, historians of science, or philosophers of science write about experiment and theory, they usually say theory and experiment instead of experiment and theory. Theory holds a more exalted place, and so should go first. Theory gets its arms around the experimental results and predicts them. Theory is what new scientists study first. Theory replaces experiment as things become better known. The order in the title of this post is chronological, as experiment always precedes theory, and makes it possible. On the way to achieving asymptotic technology, experiment comes first in all fields of scientific inquiry. An alien civilization learning technology might have gotten some experiments done first, but not developed the theory yet. Better said, they might not have developed the right theory yet. Scientists like to develop theories, and many of them are wrong. It is a survival of the fittest in scientific theory and the battleground is the prediction of experiment.

Consider a society far in advance of ours, on some exo-planet in the galaxy, continuing to pursue science and the engineering possibilities that emerge from it. It is true that some engineers figure out things that scientists haven’t gotten to yet, or just make things work by doing experiments. The line between the development of engineering novelties and the progress of science certainly is not a clear one, so for the purposes of this blog, we speak of technology. Technology subsumes engineering and science, as well as any engineering that was done for scientific purposes, such as building instruments that have never been conceived of before, and science that was done, perhaps inadvertently, in deducing how to build, test, and manufacture a new engineering triumph. They are melded together so tightly they cannot be separated cleanly, but of course we do. We label people engineers or scientists, despite what they might be doing.

The alien civilization is close enough to asymptotic technology to be able to see its end point. They are also close enough to be able to construct an interstellar probe or vessel. Out on the exo-planet they are having a debate. They don’t have a master computer yet that figures out and decides everything, but they probably have one that figures out a lot of things, and it probably is a partner in the debate. Scientists/engineers are trying to decide if they should build a starship. Everybody who would be involved in building the starship has great ideas and interest in doing so, lots of enthusiasm for it, and is ready to start immediately. In fact, they already have, on paper at least. Everybody else is against it. There is only so much funding that can be spent on science, and the other cadres of scientists/engineers have equally brilliant ideas, and plans on paper (no, not paper, some other more exo-planety way of recording), and they are committed to halting or slowing the starship project so their more valuable work can be done instead.

There are two possible reasons for this. One is that they are on a planet or a solar system just beyond the scarcity line. If their planet or solar system was a bit more deprived, maybe the glaciers covered another 10% of the planet, they would have run headlong into the Great Filter of Scarcity. This is where an alien planet, with intelligent aliens inhabiting it, cannot get to stellar adventuring because they can’t afford it. They do some science but not enough. It might be there are intelligent aliens who never get to do any science beyond the simple stuff our ancient Greeks did, because they did not have enough people and, because if was a probabilistic event, the equivalent of Sir Francis Bacon never grew up and shouted out how to do science. Maybe one was never born, or one who was born died young. Either way, life on alien planets on the tough side of the Great Filter of Scarcity don’t engage in the question of whether their scientists should get the funding for a starship.

The other reason, not counting the desires of the other scientists to make off with the funding, is that the alien civilization really doesn’t need the scientific results that would be returned, many years hence, when and if the starship gets to the selected target exo-planet (this is exo to them, of course. It might be Earth and the first time we get to meet an alien or to see an alien robotic probe, at least.)

There are three arguments the anti’s would use. One is that theory can do it all. There is no experimental results available from the probe’s instruments that would tell them anything that couldn’t be predicted by theory. Their science is extremely far advanced, and they have mastered most of everything on computational science, or whatever computational science evolves into after some more centuries of progress more than we Earthers have. They can compute the results of whatever theory they like. They understand geology, heliology, the galactic environment, and everything that derives from the study of planets, stars, satellites, comets, and any bodies of any kind, including ones we never dreamed of. They have mastered anthropological engineering, socio-anthropology, econo-anthropology, and sixteen other hyphenated scientific specialties that tell them all about how an intelligent species could behave. They know how to do art, and the science that making art has turned into, and so they can produce any type of art, using a computer and some robotic tools, that they desire. Nothing to learn here. They know genetics, and the seven kinds of genetic codes that can be used to create life, although not very advanced life for six of them. Nothing more here. They can predict, using their theoretical development so far, or that which is visible to them from this point in time, anything that the probe could possibly return. Spend the money instead on those few lines of research which have not been pushed far at all, where the payoffs would be high.

The second argument is that building more telescopic devices here in their own solar system is much, much cheaper, more likely to succeed, and able to get data on the target planet to answer the questions the proposed star probe would. This is a niche argument by the guys who live out in space on the big observational platforms. They are in the debate, and everybody is used to waiting a hour or more for their contributions and answers to questions.

The third argument is that it is only a data point. Who really cares what is on this particular planet? It won’t be of any use because they already are past the point where experiments of this type matter, and the only thing left is details. This is the same as the first argument, but dressed in different clothes. Nobody particularly would be affected by knowing what is on this target exo-planet, as the impact on science would be nil. A cost-benefit analysis shows a lot of cost and negligible benefit. The scientists could be employed elsewhere. The starship engineers can work on the next generation of interplanetary transport. They just are not going to get anything worthwhile out of any data points they would collect.

The people making the third argument are careful to refer to the information that would be returned as data points. They mean data points to fill in a curve that is already known. There is enough knowledge in the vast compendium that they have collected, in all fields, that this experiment should be replaced by theoretical work. Maybe some say couple the theoreticians, in exo-planetary atmospheric spectrography, or whatever replaces it along the way to asymptotic technology, with the observational teams located out beyond the most distant planet of their solar system, and they will produce more than the probe’s incremental information.

It is certainly not clear that any alien civilization, well on the way and close to asymptotic technology, would want to send a starship exploration vessel, or probe, to try and close some gaps in their scientific knowledge. What is clear is that the case to do so would be difficult to make. A cost-benefit analysis might show a strong negative net result. So, looking for probes might be a total waste of time for us on Earth, and have a home-town cost-benefit result that is far negative as well.

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