Thanks to writing for Ars Technica, I get about 50 unsolicited emails every day. Most of these are the standard spam fare (threatening to kill a PayPal account I don’t have, offering me certain enhancements, etc.), but I received one the other day that I actually read before deleting. This message was from an editor, offering me the chance to write a book called “1,001 Mind-Blowing Facts About the Universe”. I’ve seen lots of books like that, usually on the bargain shelves of big stores, so I suppose there’s a market for them. I can’t speak to the publisher’s quality, but I don’t imagine I’d make much money out of the book, especially if I have to come up with (gulp) 1,001 distinct facts to talk about.
Of course, I can start spewing facts about the Universe—it’s pretty easy to do. I have a fairly retentive memory, at least for some things; I don’t have to look up a lot of the basic stuff while I’m writing blog entries, for example. (I also can remember song lyrics and movie quotes very well. On the other hand, I have trouble remembering numbers for some reason.) However, regular readers of this blog have probably noticed that I’m not exactly a “1,001 facts” kind of writer. These days, I seem to only write a post if I’ve got something to say that takes over 1000 words. (My excuse is the usual one.)
Style aside, there’s another reason I’m not a big fan of omnibus fact lists: that’s not a very scientific way to organize knowledge. Facts are some of the least useful things in science, so just dumping a list of them on readers will not generally result in much gain in understanding.
Don’t get me wrong—facts are important. Some facts are pretty obvious: if you drop a rock, it falls; ice floats in water; the sky is blue. Others are less self-evident, if no less true: Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun; new species evolve from existing species; Earth hasn’t always been around and won’t always be around in the future. Other facts require a lot of mental unpacking to comprehend: the Universe is 13.7 billion years old; (nearly) every atom in your body has passed through a star; the species most closely related to humans is the bonobo. (Unless it’s the chimpanzee. I forget.) All of these facts are scientific statements, part of the basic knowledge we should all possess, but…they aren’t much by themselves.
That’s what I mean by “least useful”. You need to understand what makes rocks fall, and why species don’t remain static. That’s where scientific theory comes into play. While it’s true that theories are built from facts, different theories may interpret the same facts in very different ways. Einstein’s and Newton’s theories of gravity both give similar answers in many situations, but the explanation they provide for falling is different—and when Einstein came along, we had to mentally change the way we thought about some of the basic facts. Facts require memorization, theories require comprehension.
Theories are provisional, so it might seem they are somehow less significant for that reason. However, their very tentative nature is what makes them more powerful and important. Uninterpreted facts are useless because they carry no real information. If you want to throw a rock and know when it will land and where it will land, you need to invoke some level of physics theory. To understand the origin of species, you need some idea of “species”. Even to understand that water and ice are two aspects of the same substance, you need theory. You even need theory to know what kinds of experiments to perform, and how to interpret their results.
Facts alone are a series of disconnected musical notes; theory strings them together into melodies beautiful to the mind.