First up, let's be clear. This is not an anti-science rant. I'm an avid science-follower and I wish scientists were held in more esteem in the world of sound bites, spin, and outright fabrication of "facts" that passes for decision-making in this world.
This is a lament at the hubris that surrounds much of science, particularly its claims of explaining the physical world.
Physicists are searching for "theory of everything" and hunting for super-symmetry and the Higgs boson to bolster or disprove various theories. This is all very exciting stuff. At least, I think so. But while we may one day have a "theory of everything", I suspect an "explanation of everything" will prove rather more elusive.
My contention is that, while scientific theories are good at describing things in a way that allows us to calculate and predict the behaviour of the physical world with exquisite accuracy, these theories don't go very far in terms of true explanation.
In other words, theories tend to be very good at answering questions of "what", "where", "when", but fall far short of "how" and "why".
Let's have a look at gravity, for example.
Newton's law of gravity provided a remarkable mathematical description for the motions of the planets, that accurately modeled what 17th century astronomers observed. Moreover, it made testable predictions, leading two centuries later to the discovery of Neptune, and then Pluto. These planets were not discovered, like the others, by spotting a point of light moving across the night sky, but by observing the motions of the known planets and deducing the existence of another, as yet to be seen, body. Newton's laws enabled astronomers to work out where to look, and - lo! - there it was.
As far as explanation goes, Newton's law tells us that there is a force of attraction between any two bodies. That works as an explanation on one level. But if you keep poking at it, you soon realise that no-one can really explain what the force is, or why two masses should attract each other in the first place.
Einstein's theory of general relativity goes further, and describes gravity in terms of the curvature of space. Again, the theory has remarkable descriptive and predictive powers, showing how light gets bent as it passes close by a massive body like the sun.
Yet again, this seems to take the explanation, the insight, to another level. It provides a means by which gravitational attraction takes place. But it still leaves open the questions of how a mass bends space. In other words, when you look closer, it doesn't really explain anything much.
Where I get hot under the collar, though, is when we enter the world of particle physics and quantum mechanics.
Yet again, the standard model of particle physics, and the weird world of quantum theory, provide huge descriptive and predictive power. They give us ways of viewing the subatomic world that provides insight undreamt of to scientists prior to the 20th century.
No, it freakin' well doesn't!
It explains nothing. It just pushes the explanation a bit further away.
Nothing in any of the theories really tells us how an electron knows a photon when it meets one, or how a quark gets handcuffed to other quarks by a string of gluons. Those are the kinds of questions that I really want to answer.
All the theories do is provide a conceptual analogy that we can manipulate to get results that match observations.
I'm not knocking these achievements, don't get me wrong. Quantum theory in particular has been described as the most successful scientific theory ever. It makes some utterly bizarre predictions that have been proved right time and again by experiment, and you can thank these predictions for the existence of computers, GPS, cell phones, and many more modern conveniences.
It's just that, for all these successes, we are really no nearer to understanding - on a satisfying level - why the universe is the way it is.
Yes. Science still has a lot of explaining to do.