The Sacrament of Confirmation

by Bob Ladendorf

Speaking to a standing-room only crowd of more than 50 people at the February REALL meeting, Prof. Charles Schweighauser lambasted astrology and alleged UFO evidence based on principles of physics and astronomy.

Citing various scientific reasons for disproving astrology, Schweighauser asserted that a human desire to know what the future holds and outright charlatanism motivated by money are the two main reasons for its continuing appeal. As for UFOs, he pointed out the high improbability of any physical visitations by aliens based on the vast distances to travel, extreme mass of fuel to launch a spacecraft at the speed of light, and the friction of atoms that would tear any craft apart.

"We’re not going anywhere," he said, "and nobody’s coming to visit us, given the laws of physics as we currently understand them."

Schweighauser, a professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Illinois at Springfield and well-known for his "Star Parties" — lectures on astronomy and telescope viewing for the public, spoke about the nature of science and non-science, or nonsense. An opera lover and a voracious reader (3,000 technical abstract pages monthly), Schweighauser brought an enthusiasm for science and its methods to the meeting held at the university there.

Starting off his two-part talk on the nature of science, Schweighauser emphasized scientific methodology — that "scientific perceptions of the world ... are the products of the methods we use." Scientists find only what they look for in nature. The second point about scientific methodology is that "the final test of a concept is empirical. Science ultimately has to be concerned with the measurable .... we have to be able to gather data."

Science can’t prove that something never existed or ever will, he said. "Put it another way, if you will allow me to use a well-worn aphorism, ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’ " Consequently, science cannot prove that alien ships don’t exist.

Schweighauser emphasized that science is continually revising its hypotheses and theories based on new observations, a view espoused by Karl Popper who asserted that humans need to make mistakes as quick as possible in order to perfect their ideas and theories.

Indicating that falsifiability is important for evaluating scientific concepts, Schweighauser pointed out that certain concepts, such as Ptolemaic geocentrism, that have been made into doctrines can have detrimental effects on human activities. In addition, the necessity for the repeatability of experiments and observations is paramount. "Science proceeds by comparison of data and facts," he said," or as Voltaire observed in 1760: ‘In the case of news, we should always wait for the sacrament of confirmation.’"

In the second part of his talk, Schweighauser listed the problems with astrology: predictions are vague, ill-defined; zodiac doesn’t correspond to anything in the natural world; constellations no longer aligned with the sun’s location; negligible effects of solar or planetary influences ["The gravitational effect of Mars on a newborn baby is less than the gravitational effects of the doctor who is delivering the baby."]; and the discovery of new planets in the past 200 years, well after the origins of astrology.

In an instructive and entertaining demonstration of the third point, Schweighauser showed with a special globe and gyroscope how the earth’s "wobble" has changed the alignment of the sun with the constellations in the zodiac — thus showing that the "system the astrologers use today is out of whack with what is going on in the real universe."

After discussing the appeal of astrology, he cast doubt on the existence of alien visitations to earth based on the fact that the distances between our solar system and the nearest star is immense. A spacecraft travelling at 10,000 mph (similar to the Voyager 1 and 2 speed) to Alpha Centauri would take 300,000 years, enough time for 10,000 generations of humans to have evolved! Traveling at the speed of light (a much faster way to get there) presents its own problems, he added. It would take an amount of fuel greater than the mass of earth just to launch the spacecraft, and an even greater mass to brake it! Even atoms striking a craft at that speed would blow it apart.

Following a question-and-answer period, the audience gave Prof. Schweighauser a round of applause. Throughout his talk, he had talked of the abilities of the human mind.

A fitting summary for his night of sharing knowledge and wisdom with REALL can be found back in the first part of his speech: "The important point to remember is that scientific theories and laws are human constructs. They are not sacred, they are not doctrine; they are the products of our minds."

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