Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Cosmic Imperfection?

Three scientists have been awarded a Nobel Prize for discovering a mechanism known as "spontaneous broken symmetry", thought to explain the origins of the universe as we know it.

Under the headline "Cosmic Imperfection Celebrated", Jonathan Amos (BBC Science reporter) describes this mechanism in terms of "tiny - but hugely significant - flaws in the fabric of the Universe".

Words like "imperfection" and "flaw" sound suspiciously like value judgements. And since they lead to the creation of the world, it is perhaps not surprising to find people talking about these so-called imperfections in teleological terms. The God Particle. Et In Arcadia Ego. God Only Knows.

In other words, the effect (and therefore the purpose) of this mechanism is to create life. We are imperfect because the fundamental origins of life are imperfect. Original sin. Or something.

I should stress that Jonathan Amos himself doesn't go this far. However, this kind of quasi-religious discussion seems to follow almost inevitably once you start to attach value judgements to scientific concepts.

This kind of popular discussion is of course completely unscientific, and irrelevant to the scientific breakthrough that won the Nobel prize in the first place. But then, as we've pointed out here before, science journalism often has to strike a difficult balance between pure scientific objectivity and the need to make science more interesting to the general public.

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