Sep 07 2009
Did you know that the two greatest, worldview-altering scientific advances of the 20th century — relativity theory (s) and quantum uncertainty — were initially called something different? It is my opinion that had the initial names stuck, it would have dramatically influenced the worldviews many people ascribe to today.
First, relativity. Einstein’s famous breakthrough was the realization that because the speed of light is constant, measures of space and time are relative. Thus, relativity theory. Yet Einstein’s initial focus was of the first part of that equation. The real “outside the box” thinking was this: while all other motion carries a relative speed (relative to the observer), the speed of light does not! It is always the same, it never varies. And so Einstein used the word “invariance” to describe his great theoretical advance.
If Einstein’s theory were know today as the theory of invariance or invariance theory, I wonder what the worldview-implications would be. Rather than, “well, it’s all relative,” would people today be saying, “well, it’s all invariant”?
Second, quantum uncertainty. In a similar fashion, Heisenberg’s famous breakthrough first carried a different name. His breakthrough: the more accurately you measure of a particle’s position, the less accurately you can measure its speed. Heisenberg first referred to this phenomenon with a German word that translates as “inexactness.”*
Had that stuck, how would quantum inexactness have differently influenced people’s worldviews?
Heisenberg also used indeterminacy. This is my preferred word. And one of the reasons why is accuracy. The measures aren’t uncertain; they are relatively imprecise or less accurately determinable. And scientists are certain about that. Another reason is that these other words don’t carry the same ability to bogusly distort people’s worldviews. The woo-meisters love “uncertainty,” for if science is uncertain, they can better inject their feel-good bologna into the workings of the universe.
It was Niels Bohr who pressured Heisenberg into using the word uncertainty. Deepok Chopra, for one, owe’s him a debt of gratitude.
What’s in a word? A lot. Sometimes an entire worldview can be built atop of one.
*From David Lindley’s Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science.