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Facts on an infinite improbability overdrive

columns Updated: Sep 22, 2012 22:53 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
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What makes science so exciting is that it is by definition empirical - the result of objective analysis based on facts established after years of backbreaking observation, experimentation and review. Like Mount Everest, it has a solidness and dependability that fiction and theoretical abstractions lack because they have the luxury of not letting facts get into the way of a sometimes good, but a more often pedestrian, story or argument.

Lately, the huge problem before me has been that much like technology, scientific facts are changing faster than the speed of light. Facts can now be at best described as evolving mesofacts, which change continuously, much like data and population size.

Three days ago, NASA announced that warp drive - the theoretical faster-than-light propulsion system that made it possible for Star Trek's Captain James T Kirk and his Enterprise crew to go interstellar travelling to spaces where no man had gone before - can technically be created by compressing space-time in front of the spaceship while expanding space-time behind it, first described by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1994. New calculations show the amount of energy required to create the Alcubierre warp drive is much smaller than earlier believed, which makes time-space travel potentially possible in the not-so-near future.

It's not just physicists who are turning textbook fact into fiction. Things around us are changing every day, again largely because of new findings in labs across the world. Smoking has gone from being a stress-buster to being a deadly poison. Eggs have gone from being good to bad to acceptable. Running went from good (for the heart), to bad (for the knees) to good again (with the rider that you must get good running shoes).

My colleagues with diabetes now tell me they are so confused about what is good for them and what is not that they have given up trying to keep track and started eating everything. And I don't know whether my blood report that shows my good cholesterol is higher than my bad cholesterol is good or bad for me. Four months ago, it would have been great news, but since then, Harvard School of Public Health researchers have muddied the waters by identifying a subclass of good cholesterol that does more harm than good to the heart.

This is what makes The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has An Expiration Date by Samuel Arbesman prescription reading for every confused quester like me looking for the mountain beyond the haze. Arbesman uses scientometrics - simply put, the science of science - to measure how long it will take, exponentially, for knowledge in any field to be disproved. Arbesman, an applied mathematician and network scientist at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in the US, takes mesofacts beyond technological upgrades such as transportation speeds and changes in how information is saved - from floppy disk to the cloud in less than three decades - to everyday life. Understanding mesofacts, he says, eliminates part of the surprise in our lives and help us "recognise that there is an order to all of our changing knowledge". I was happy to discover that for medicine, the half-life is 45 years, which means what I write will not be debunked till I'm too gaga to care.

On a more serious note, sifting fact from fiction is all about cutting through the chaos of evolving knowledge by accepting the limits of how much we can know with certainty. Again, it's a bit like Mount Everest. The mesofact that it growing two inches higher each year does not take away from the fact that it is there, looming large and very, very solid.