Doubt and Certainty

Beyond our distantmost candle of fact lies a seductive darkness. Scientists are drawn to this blacknessn because we know it hides more candles, as yet unlit. We strike matches of hypothesis in the hope that a new wick will catch fire. Hypotheses seek to explain what we know, but most important, they make predictions about what we don't know - about experiments not yet run, or fossils not yet discovered. For this reason, hypotheses provide a built-in criteria for evaluation: do they help us light the next candle or not.

Many hypotheses turn out to be wrong-some gloriously and others ignominiously so. This isn't because scientists are dim or the exercise futile. It simply reflects the difficulty of fashioning a lating explanation of nature. In fact, most hypotheses include useful ideas that survive to become part of the next model or scenario...

.....................Life on a Young Planet by Andrew H. Knoll

Very poetically expressed, but to me this captures much of the essence of science - so much so that I am astounded to discover scientists who doubt it. There is another approach to understanding the world - one based on faith, revelation and certainty. I have always considered that the province of religion, but oddly, to me, it seems to crop up even in physics.

How otherwise can we explain the religious fury with which certain string theorists rage at any alternative to their hypothesis?

Knoll was talking about biology though, and specifically about the hypothesis Konstantin Sergeevich Merezhkovsky came up with a little over one hundred years ago: that chloroplasts were in fact endosymbionts of a Eukaryote and a cyanobacterium. That hypothesis languished for sixty years until by 1960 it was remembered in textbooks only as:

a bad penny that has been in circulation too long

The technology of the time had not been able to confirm his hypothesis. In 1967, Lynn Margulies (as Lynn Sagan), rediscovered and extended the endosymbiont hypothesis, and by that time the tools of molecular biology and electron microscope confirmed it beyond doubt (Her paper was rejected 15 times before being accepted!).


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