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zOMG Science Accurately Predicts Future!

Here's lookin' at you

In the 10:00 section of class, I suggested that one way we know science is working or theory is sound is when it can tell us what the future holds. Today Ed Yong’s post on jumping spiders and the benefits of blurry vision ends with this statement:

Nagata even created a mathematical model for the spider’s eye to predict how far it would miss its jump under different wavelengths of light. The model’s predictions matched the animal’s actual behaviour.

So there it is: Nagata does some math, the math says: the spider will jump yea-far, and voila! the spider does it.

Maybe we tend to think of “predicting the future” more in terms of catastrophe or romance (“you’ll meet a tall dark stranger . . . “), but the ability to predict even tiny things–how far a spider will jump, how fast an object will accelerate, how much effect a certain chemical will have on a biological system–is seductive, isn’t it? It gives me a little thrill, a little moment of HEY THAT JUST WORKED.

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  1. DM
    January 27, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    It seems to me that people are always finding little thrills in predicting the future. Whether it’s predicting which team will win the Super Bowl, or whether to choose rock, paper, or scissors, people are constantly trying to prove that they “know” what is going to happen. I remember that when I was in elementary school, my friends and I would always ask each other, “Hey, what color am I thinking of?”. If we, by chance of course, guessed the correct one, we were so excited! It was as if, for that one second in time, we had some sort of supernatural ability.

  2. January 28, 2012 at 5:46 pm

    Just to add on a little, I agree that science indeed has the power of predicting things, yet we tend to take for granted those phenomenon that we encounter every day. Quick example, Newton’s Law says that F = m x a, which in other words is Force is equal to Mass times Acceleration. It is, thus, clear that for a bigger mass, one needs to exert greater force in order to make it move with the same acceleration as of the smaller mass. It has been such a common knowledge to us, that we don’t consider this statement as of something predictive: “Hey kid, if you wanna move the bigger rock, you’ll need to push it harder!”

    But look, when the NASA scientists, for instance, say that a big comet will be visible to naked eyes in February 2012, it astonishes people. Now, that is prediction! However, I would reason that, actually, both cases presented above are the same science with the same rule of computation and physical laws underlying it, the latter one just happens to be a little bit more complex and involved. So, yeah, science is all about predicting. And the predicted things may vary in a wide spectrum of ordinariness.

  3. January 29, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    The first comment reminded me of those paper fortune teller games people used to play back in elementary school. A piece of paper was folded up to be held with your fingers, covered in various numbers or symbols, and under each fold was written a possible fortune. I was never skilled enough in the art of origami to make them myself, but those who could were treated like playground oracles. Everyone wanted to know what they’re life was going to be like. After all, if all you have to do to know that you’re going to marry the girl from Saved by the Bell and drive a sports car when you grow up is let some kid that can “seriously see the future” play with a piece of paper or rub your palms for a little bit, you’re not passing that opportunity up.

    People like knowing what’s going to happen to them. Am I going to get into that school or do I need to start looking somewhere? Can I make that yellow light or is it going to turn red while I’m going through? Uncertainty is a part of life I think many people are uncomfortable with. Although we can use science to predict certain things like the weather, the movement of celestial objects, etc. the wide majority of people I don’t think appreciate those kinds of developments. It’s amazing that we can evacuate a region that has potential to be stuck by a natural disaster and save countless lives because of it, but at the same time I don’t think many people would think of that as anything too spectacular. They still want to be able to predict what’s going to happen in their lives rather than their world.

  4. January 30, 2012 at 12:24 am

    I think that one of the more important parts of this posts is that science can be translated into ordinary, daily activities. Whether it’s watching a spider jump from one space to the next, moving a rock, or predicting the winner of “rock, paper, scissors”, science can be a part of your life without even knowing it!

    People may be more interested in learning about science if it were related to the world around them more often. We use science much more than we realize it, and not always in the complicated ways most people think about it.

  5. January 30, 2012 at 3:22 am

    I thought that this was a really interesting insight into the practical applications of science which most people aren’t remotely aware of. Just an example, I do ballroom dance. I know that when I’m doing routines, Newton’s laws of physics don’t even cross my mind. Everything we do, even our mere existence, is based in science; from the most micro-biotic level to the most cosmic one. It’s literally mind-blowing to think about, which is probably why most people choose to ignore it.
    I think in this post you’ve touched on one of the fundamental juxtapositions of science and human nature. Likes and dislikes, passions and emotions, are universally un-measurable, and far from an exact science. That being said, I think that most people like not knowing what the future holds. If we knew exactly what was going to happen the next day, what motivation would we have to wake up in the morning? Although I was tempted, once-upon-a-time, to read the last page in the 7th Harry Potter book first, I knew that if I did, I would never make it through the other 50-odd chapters. Although we are all scared by uncertainty, I think we are equally thrilled by it. Ultimately, it is curiosity that propagates discovery. It is the unknown that leads us to ask questions, and questions that lead us to seek answers.
    I think for this reason, science is two-fold. It is self-motivating, in a way, because the more we discover, the more we still want to know. Inevitable, when one door is opened, it leads to a room with a million windows. I think that you’re right; we should recognize the significance of these amazing, if small discoveries, and also recognize the repercussions they will have, the questions they will generate, in the unforeseeable future.

  6. January 30, 2012 at 3:44 am

    I think what’s interesting is that, even though people (students especially) are often frustrated by the fact that our science courses don’t seem to relate to our lives at all, we still overlook how, as people have said before me, science does connect with us in many ways. It’s possible that people consider a noteworthy scientific discovery to include something groundbreaking, or something we have never heard of or seen before. In reality, however, science is happening all the time, and people often don’t stop to realize it.

  7. HK
    January 30, 2012 at 3:59 am

    This is a fun and elegant example of our human power to understand what we observe through the scientific method. I like how you described the moment of discovery–the “little thrill” that comes with understanding something so completely as to correctly predict it in the future. I think that’s what drives us, as a species, to continue to push the limits of scientific knowledge. On the surface, it may seem pointless to push further. There comes a point when some advances have no effect on our everyday lives. Really, how much will a complete unified field theory affect your next trip to the grocery store? Yet we keep at it. It’s the thrill of discovery that drives scientists to keep asking questions. To understand a piece of the natural world gives us a kind of power over it. That’s not to say we have the right to destroy what we understand, but the acquisition of knowledge is coupled with the thrill of this imagined power. For this reason, I don’t think humans will ever stop trying to find patterns in the chaos.

  8. January 30, 2012 at 4:40 am

    When “HEY THAT JUST WORKED” pops into your head because of a mathematical equation…it makes me rethink my major. Science may not be absolute, but math, one could argue, defines the word. On top of the initial amazement that numbers fit into equations which give you definite solutions, is the ability of those equations to have real world applications. Amazing! Using an equation to predict how living breathing “things” are going to behave! Doesn’t that go against everything we have been taught about the unpredictability of life? Math continues to amaze, and it makes me ask myself, “Why am I in a major that is so unforeseeable? Is there purpose is learning subject matter that has no concrete foundation in which to base ones future applicability?” Math and the sciences that are connected to it, have certainty. They possess the ability to provide you with an absolute. It’s alluring. After all, is not certainty in life what everyone strives for?

  9. Alex
    February 1, 2012 at 1:18 am

    This post is informative, thrilling and humorous. I don’t think I would ever assume a spider would be able to see into the future even with having four eyes. Although, the photo of that spider gives me the heebee-geebees, I appreciate how you linked something so scientific to something many people see as impossible. Of course, prediction of the future can be made but the outcome can never be truly certain. However, with Nagata, its prediction are always right on the money.

  10. February 6, 2012 at 1:46 am

    This post was really interesting. Every time I think about predicting the future I think about the fortune tellers in the movies always saying something negative. I would also have to agree with Alex, you did link something so scientific to something so impossible: predicting the future. I do also think that people study science because they believe it has the ability to do great things. This is true, I believe it too. The idea that how far the spider could jump is predicting the future, which it technically is to the idea of predicting what someones life will be like tomorrow are two very different things. I believe that science could only go so far, but it did give me the notion that science can make thing possible. I guess that’s why people have a lot of faith in it.

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