Our latest meeting of Skeptics in the Castle was hosted by Dr. Niall Smith, Head of Research in Cork Institute of Technology and a founding member of Blackrock Castle Observatory. Niall holds a degree in astrophysics and is a superb science communicator.
In a wide-ranging and frequently hilarious talk, Niall spoke about the importance of experimentation to scepticism and science. Niall, a keen Carl Sagan enthusiast (“I hated Carl Sagan because he wrote so well”), spoke about extraordinary claims that no level of testing can pick up and why we can be rightly sceptical of such claims. But he also warned against unbounded skepticism, quoting Lord Kelvin whose scepticism lead him to conclude that x-rays were a hoax and that airplanes were impossible.
His talk then turned to claims that don’t make much sense but where the experimental results were nevertheless unambiguous. A classic example is Wave Particle Duality, where light sometimes acts as a wave, and other times acts as a particle. It’s a mechanism that’s still not fully understood, yet it is verified to an exceedingly high degree of precision by modern science. He also spoke about the age of the universe – how current models cannot yet explain how the universe appears to be larger than expected and how light speed is the same no matter which direction or speed you are moving. All these are challenging results, but experimentally there is no debate – they can be shown to work every single time. They demonstrate that although we know a lot, there is a lot still yet to be understood about the nature of reality. As Niall said “just because you can’t explain it, doesn’t automatically mean you must reject it”.
Niall discussed the possibility of aliens, and wondered why any alien would want to experiment on humans after such a long journey through space – “maybe they’re really smart physicists but really stupid biologists”. He also had some interesting things to say about pseudo-scientific claims – that they rarely told us anything new about the world, whereas scientific discoveries often lead us down new and fascinating paths. Quoting Isaac Azimov, he said that science moves forwards, not through “Eureka” moments, but by someone saying “Hmm, that’s funny”.
Niall’s talk both thought provoking and entertaining, and although the room did heat up a bit, we didn’t find any dragon.