I’m not a believer. I don’t readily believe stuff I’m told. I was raised as a Roman Catholic, but I didn’t really believe what I was taught. It didn’t make sense. It didn’t add up. And because it didn’t make sense, I gradually ceased to believe it. Or most of it.
I have the same disbelief about lots of other things too. I seldom believe anything simply because someone authoritatively tells me so. So when NASA said that that the Chelyabinsk fireball was completely unrelated to asteroid DA14 passing close to the Earth on the same day, I didn’t believe them. I didn’t see how they could be so quick – same day – to say this. And so I spent the next two years looking for ways that they could have been companions, using a computer simulation model. And in the end I found that if there had been a rock trailing 25 million km behind DA14, it could have arrived over Chelyabinsk at 03:20 UTC on 15 February 2013, coming from the right direction. So NASA were wrong: the Chelyabinsk rock could have been a companion of DA14. I’m not saying that it was. Just that it could have been.
I have the same disbelief when I see a whole bunch of doctors authoritatively declaring that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, or whole bunch of climate scientists authoritatively declaring that Carbon Dioxide Causes Global Warming, or a whole bunch of authorities authoritatively declaring anything – particularly if their authoritative announcements also mean that I’m supposed to radically change the way I live, and stop smoking and drinking and eating sugar and salt and meat.
I tend to believe things when they accord with common sense, with everyday experience. And I tend to disbelieve things when they don’t.
I’d believe in ghosts if I saw them every day. But I’ve never seen one single ghost in my entire life. I’d believe in life after death if people routinely came back to life a few days or weeks after dropping dead. But I’ve never seen anybody do that either. So I don’t believe that happens either.
The world of everyday experience is one in which it’s hard to move heavy things, easy to move light things. It’s a world in which pencils will roll off tables and fall to the floor. And where water poured into a cup stays at the bottom of it. It’s a world that I experience every single day.
And when I was taught physics at school, I was introduced to a new range of experiences. Of how light behaves in prisms and lens. How magnetism produces lines of force around a magnet. How electricity flows in resistors. And how all these things can be measured with scales and rulers and thermometers and clocks. And how these behaviours could be explained using theories about electricity and magnetism and light. Physics is rooted in everyday experience. The ordinary world – in which balls bounce, and water flows downhill, and heavy things are harder to pick up than light things – is one big physics laboratory.
I like watching snooker and pool. I like playing them too. And I think that one of the reasons I like them is because a snooker table is simply a table on which balls bounce off each other, and off the sides of the table, in fairly predictable ways. A snooker table is a little physics laboratory for studying balls bouncing off each other. In fact, I’d guess that the first snooker table was created in someone’s physics laboratory, so that they could study how balls bounced. Why else would someone go to the trouble of making perfect spheres out of ivory, and placing them on a perfectly flat surface, and striking them with wooden hammers or sticks?
My orbital simulation model is a little physics laboratory. Or rather a theoretical physics laboratory, since I’m using Newtonian theory rather than actual planets – my room isn’t quite big enough to fit a real solar system inside.
I’m always building little working theoretical physical models. Idle Theory is a piece of simple theoretical physics, that uses my own very simple physical model of life. I’ve built models of things walking and water droplets and dividing cells. I’ve grown theoretical plants. And I’ve even thought about snooker kicks. And so when the climate scientists started on about global warming, I wanted to build my own climate model too, naturally.
Because the way I see it, if people don’t have their own working models of living things and dividing cells and planets and atmospheres, then all they’ve got is what authorities like NASA and the WHO and the IPCC tell them, and they’ve got no way of checking whether what they’re being told is true or not. And then what you have is a belief system – a religion – with its priests and doctors and experts telling everybody what they should think, what they should believe. If you can’t add, then who are you to argue with mathematicians who tell you that 12 + 7 = 19 or 127 or whatever else they claim it is, using their funny symbols? You can only either believe or disbelieve.
And the more weird and wonderful things that I find people believe, the more I find myself wanting to go back to the world of repeatable everyday experience, and to build models of that world from the simplest building blocks. For I think that if we are ever going to understand this extraordinary universe in which we find ourselves, it’s going to be through building little simple models of bits of it – little pool table test beds -, and gradually combine simple understandings gained of simple things into complex understandings of complex things – like climate and cancer and life and money and morality.
And we’ve barely started.