Speculating on scientific ideas is the cornerstone of science fiction and it is also a cornerstone of science.
With the scientific romance novels of the late 19th and early 20th century, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took what was known or believed to be the nature of reality and injected into that a hypothesis to be explored; through the medium of fictional writing.
Wells gave us an invading hoard fleeing an inexorably dying planet Mars, and Verne, fantastic explorations of an inaccessible planet Earth. This set a precedent for what would become known as the genre of Science Fiction in literature and later in other modern entertainment media. It’s fun to speculate on scientific ideas – a notion that Hollywood wasn’t slow to capitalise on.
Speculation is also an essential for scientists. It is a prerequisite, beginning the cycle of exploration that is the application of the scientific method that involves formulating hypotheses that will eventually be put forwards for testing. Those hypotheses that pass their tests will perhaps become scientific theories.
Many valid theories can exist to explain an individual attribute of nature. Only further exploration of the nature of the universe in which we live can (it would be hoped) invalidate an existing theory.
The ultimate truth of the nature of reality however will never really be truly known to us. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that scientific theories that are developed can be used to make predictions for events of nature or for the development of technologies. However, the absolute truth, as an end goal of science, is not only not possible, it is a logical fallacy. In science it is the journey that is important. Too often scientists forget this and belief and dogma ensues. Science is just one tool in the toolbox that is philosophy.
When it comes to what scientists really believe, it’s one thing to read or listen to published or public work of a scientist. It’s a very different thing to be able to discuss the subject with a scientist casually over a beer. That’s simply the social reality of self preservation and knowledge sharing within the scientific community.
In modern times, academic science has become rigid and conformist. Gone are the days of Newton, Einstein and Tesla whose individuality gave them freedom to explore without fear or prejudice. We appeared to have regressed to the times of Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno. Only this time, rather than scientists being denounced as heretics by the Roman Catholic Church, modern day astronomers are denounced as heretics by the church of scientific cosmology where failure to conform can result in expulsion from their academic establishments or the inability to secure funding and time on modern telescopes to advance their work.
The high priests of science have conducted science within a paradigm where competition over funding results in bias towards established beliefs. With the advent of the 20th century the idea of lone geniuses working independently became replaced with scientists always working under the scrutiny of corporate and financial overlords.
Many mainstream scientists have been critical of the current academic system that has come about in the last 70 years. As Sir Fred Hoyle once commented about this “now, when astronomers look through their new telescopes they will only see what they wanted to see”.
Hoyle was a pre-eminent astronomer who pioneered many fields including astrobiology (a term he coined) with his work to figure out what interstellar grains are made of. Suggesting they were composed of dead and decaying bacteria was too far against the consensus belief of the day back in the 1970’s. Yet, here we are fifty years later with fossil evidence, found in meteorites, coming closer to being more widely accepted than ever.
Hoyle is also famous for coining the term Big Bang, doing so as a slightly derogatory remark in an interview on BBC radio. Of proponents of the Big Bang theory Hoyle once commented:
“The reason why scientists like the ‘big bang’ is because they are overshadowed by the Book of Genesis. It is deep within the psyche of most scientists to believe in the first page of Genesis.” – Sir Fred Hoyle