Saturday, August 12, 2006


Lord Kelvin once said: "When you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind." How true. And Einstein showed that the variables need not even be complex with his everlasting "E=mc^2" equation.
One drawback of this is that most laymen think that everything expressed as a number is either correct, or scientific, or both. For example, take HDK (Kumaraswamy)'s injunction that he is 12.5% satisfied with his performance. Now, what does this figure mean, unless you know what the "per-cent" actually means? There are many instances - for example, ministers rating themselves on scales of anything from 5 to 10, industrialists rating budgets, and not far away from 'home', project managers tracking projects with Microsoft Project plans. In today's world it is possible to give anything respectability as long as you express it as a number.
Oh, and the scientific world isn't immune to this phenomenon. Those of you who read science fiction (and those who read my Michael Crichton forward :D ) will know of this 'equation':
N=N*fp ne fl fi fc fL
This is the famous Drake equation from the 1960s to estimate the number of advanced civilizations in the galaxy. N is the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy; fp is the fraction with planets; ne is the number of planets per star capable of supporting life; fl is the fraction of planets where life evolves; fi is the fraction where intelligent life evolves; and fc is the fraction that communicates; and fL is the fraction of the planet’s life during which the communicating civilizations live.
Tell me, if someone had told you that the probability of finding intelligent life depended on all the factors mentioned above, in plain English, would you have taken that seriously? Now that it is in the form of an 'equation', it has to be right, doesn't it? Well, what is the problem with this 'equation'? Simple,
a) It cannot be verified
b) It has, (and therefore, as some folks conclude needs) no proof
c) There is nothing you can do with this equation. OK, we might be able to calculate (or at the least estimate) the values of N and fp. But what will we do with the values of fi, fc and fL? Do we go by statistical data? In that case, we know of only one planet in which life evolved, and then evolved into intelligent life. So, is the fi factor = 1? But what about all the planets and stars and solar systems that we haven't even 'heard' from? How do you factor those into this 'equation'?
Thanks to Michael Crichton for writing about this one. Read more of his thoughts and opinions at this site.


Anonymous said...

An equation/formula is mostly a result of observation or imagination of something related. It represents something that the researcher wants to talk about and wishes to see it forming the basis for further study. Researcher's must be using them to begin with as it lets them work in the more abstract realms they prefer, free from slavery to particular cases.

For instance, take the case of a
functional notation f(x). Here f(x) doesn't mean f times x, but rather some unspecified function of x. Without defining
the function we don't know how it depends.Later, we may specify, for example, that
f(x) = 3x+1
Then we know how it depends on x and hence we manage to describe a mathematical behaviour.
Often mathematics( or any research ) doesn't want to get down to specifics.

But, yes I am one among those who develop some kind of sensitivity whenever attempts are made to contaminate science with politics.

Gops said...


Often mathematics( or any research ) doesn't want to get down to specifics.

Then that wouldn't be math/research, right? :D

Anonymous said...

Researchers must be using their formulae to *begin with* as it lets them work in the more abstract realms *they prefer*, free from slavery to particular cases.

Maybe at a particular stage, it is feasible to the researchers to proceed further by not getting into specifics.But before they conclude their work media *overstates* in the name of information giving and as a result whatever research/work done so far appears to be under done.

My thoughts here are from an optimistic point of view.
Hope this clarifies.

Gops said...

Yep! It does :)