Thursday, May 05, 2005

Einstein and Darwin: A tale of two theories

Einstein and Darwin: A tale of two theories
Q&A with ‘Origins’ astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson
What were the consequences in the mid-1800s of saying you didn’t believe Darwin? There weren’t any, really. But today, with biotech companies, there is no understanding of biology without the theory of evolution. And so if you say, ‘I don’t believe the theory of evolution, I think we were all specially created,’ you must understand the consequences of it to your own employability.

Now if you don’t want to become a scientist, then maybe it doesn’t matter. Fine. There are plenty of professions that do not involve scientists. But as I said, the emergent economies are going to be scientifically and technologically driven, with biotech front and center. If you’re coming in saying that there was Adam and Eve, you’re not going to get past the front door. Because they can’t use your knowledge base to invent the next vaccine, the next medicine, the next cure for cancer. That knowledge base does not track into discoveries we know are awaiting us in the halls of biotech firms.

You’re saying that your perspective on those theories affects the pace of innovation?

Yes. And I would add this, just to nip this argument over “theories” in the bud: Until Einstein, all tested, confirmed physical theories were labeled laws. There’s Newton’s three laws of motion … the laws of gravity … the laws of thermodynamics. When Einstein came along, he showed that Newton was incomplete — not wrong, but incomplete, describing just a subset of reality. Einstein showed that a deeper understanding was required to account for this reality. At that point, physicists – I think not even consciously, just sort of subconsciously – stopped calling things “laws.”

There are no “laws” of physics in the 20th century. It’s quantum theory … the theory of relativity … you just look in the books, they all use the term “theory.” I think it’s a recognition that someone who comes after you may achieve an even deeper understanding of how things work. But “deeper” doesn’t mean that what you did is no longer valid. It just means that there’s a larger sphere of understanding that awaits you, in which what you just learned is embedded.

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