This was the last presentation at the recent Beyond Belief: Candles in the Dark conference.
Peter Atkins does upset some people. Although he is intentionally provocative (his presentation is entitled “Pride in Prejudice”), I think his science is sound.
Atkins was Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford from 1965 until his retirement in 2007. He is the author of over 60 books including Four Laws That Drive the Universe; Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science; and the world-renowned textbook Physical Chemistry. He is involved in a variety of international activities including chairing the Committee on Chemistry Education of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and organizing the Malta series of conferences.
Atkins contrasts the blind prejudices of religion, which deny the power of human understanding, to “scientific prejudices” which are based on, and change with, evidence. However, he suggest that there may be ideas in science which can be considered as eternally true and lists three possible contenders:
- Energy is conserved – this underlies causality and hence the comprehensibility of the universe;
- The quality of energy easily degrades – the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This enables energy to be used constructively for life, evolution, humanity and intelligence. This is his favourite law – he believes it illuminates everything and can’t see how it could ever be replaced;
- Mathematics works. It is the supreme language for the description and elucidation of the world. He suggests it is closely allied to, and hence powerful in illuminating, truth.
Some other interesting points he discusses are:
- He questions the validity of any “why question” – if it can’t be reconstructed into “how questions.” This seperates the “wheat from the chaff.”
- The scientific process sculpts simplicity out of complexity. It is essetnially reductionist but is accompanied by what he calls “assemblism” (science involves both analysis and synthesis – it is holistic);