It Ain't Necessarily So

Preceding the scientific method is a way of being in the world that defies the concept of a solid, immutable reality. Challenging this apparent reality in a scientific manner can potentially unveil a revolutionary shift in its representation and thus recreate reality itself. Such suspension of belief implies the temporary forfeiting of some explanatory power of old concepts and the adoption of a new set of assumptions in their place.

Reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than the state by which they may appear or thought to be — a rather ambiguous definition given our known limits to observation and comprehension of concepts and methods. This ambiguity, captured by the aphorism thatthings are not what they seem, and again with swing in Sportin' Life's songIt Ain't Necessarily So, is a thread that seems to consistently appear throughout the history of science and the evolution of the natural world. In fact, ideas that have challenged accepted doctrines and created new realities have prevailed in fields ranging from warfare to flight technology, from physics to medicinal discoveries.

Recall the battle between David and Goliath mentioned in Gershwin's song. The giant warrior, evidently unbeatable by every measure of reality, is at once defeated by a lyre-playing underdog who challenges this seemingly apparent reality by devising a nearly scientific and unconventional combat strategy.

The postulation that mighty opponents have feeble spots also holds true for the war against ostensibly incurable diseases. Edward Jenner's inoculation experiments with the cowpox virus to build immunity against the deadly scourge of smallpox gave rise to the vaccine that later helped prevent diseases such as Polio, Malaria and HIV. The very idea that an enemy — a disease — is to be overcome exclusively by brute force was defied by the counter-intuitive hypothesis that the disease itself — or a mild version of its toxins — might be internally memorized by the human immune system as a preventive measure.

Da Vinci's flying machine is another case in point. Challenging the myth of Icarus and its moral that humans should not attempt flying, Leonardo designs a hanger glider inspired by his studies into the structure-function relationships of bird wings. This is the first flying machine known to men on the basis of which our entire avionic industry has evolved.

Challenging what was assumed to be the nature of reality, conveniently supported by religious authorities, Copernicus disputes the Ptolemaic model of the heavens, which postulated the Earth at the center of the universe, by providing the heliocentric model with the Sun at the center of our solar system. The Scientific Revolution of the 16th century then followed, laying the foundations for modern science.

But the Gospel takes many forms besides religion or received wisdom. Occasionally the Gospel emerges as science itself at a particular moment in history. Einstein challenged the Gospel of his day by introducing the concept of space-time and upending our perception of the universe.

It Ain't Necessarily So is a drug dealer's attempt to challenge the gospel of religion by expressing doubts in the Bible: the song is indeed immortal, but Sportin' himself does not surpass doubt. In science, Sportin's attitude is an essential first step forward but it ain't sufficientlyso. It is a step that must be followed by scientific concepts and methods. Still, it is worth remembering to take your Gospel with a grain of salt because, sometimes, it ain't nessa, ain't nessa, it ain't necessarily so.