Nature is the ultimate authority

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) demonstrated that, contrary to common understanding, heavy objects do not fall faster than light objects. They fall at the same rate. Galilei's work marked the dawn of the scientific age.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) demonstrated that, contrary to common understanding, heavy objects do not fall faster than light objects. They fall at the same rate. Galilei’s work marked the dawn of the scientific age.

Now that anybody can post anything on the internet, made up or not, it can get difficult to know the truth, posing great danger to society. As schoolkids we were conditioned to believe authority. If teacher said it, it is true; that’s how we learned in kindergarten. “There it is, in black and white, in a book.” Too many adults still believe that, with TV and computers replacing books.

As a teenager I was lucky to have a science teacher who encouraged us to be skeptical. Not everything in textbooks is true. In some cases, we could do an experiment and see that for ourselves.

For a thousand years, people were told that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. Galileo had the audacity to demonstrate that it was not true. That was the dawn of the scientific age. Nature is the only true authority in the physical world. Isaac Newton, born less than a year after Galileo died (1642), had the fantastic idea that every two objects attract each other with a gravitational force. You sit or stand up, and the moon orbits Earth; it’s the same force and can be calculated and measured, and it works.

Of course, we cannot test it with every pair of objects, but we can try to disprove it by finding a case where it fails. In one case it failed, the orbit of Mercury showed a tiny discrepancy, explained by Einstein’s more precise theory of gravity.

I have a toy that floats in the air, not falling down. Antigravity? No, it’s a magnet, and magnetism and electricity are other forces that can counteract gravity. Thanks to scientists in the 19th century measuring and calculating those fields, your life has little in common with that of your 18th century ancestors. A power cut of a few hours is a nuisance — but imagine if all the power stations in the world shut down permanently. With no electronics or radio communications either, what would happen to our civilization? We would enter a new Dark Age.

Sometimes a scientist claims to have discovered something that is wrong, and it will be challenged by others and disproven. Science progresses by disproving incorrect theories and claims. It is self-correcting; therein lies its success.

For your quality of life, thank the scientific method, which asks Nature for the truth, not people in authority.