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Science: It’s the law!

I recently overheard something that no doubt many of us have heard in one form or another — that you can pay a heavy price for breaking the laws of nature. Since I wasn’t party to the conversation I resisted the urge to butt in, but there was definitely some squirming on my part.

That statement is false because laws of nature simply cannot be broken.

If it appears that someone or something is in contravention of the laws of nature, then there are really only two conclusions that can be drawn: either your observations and/or conclusions are faulty, or the law has been misinterpreted and needs to be thrown out or modified.

Probably the classic case of this would be the realisation in the 19th century that Isaac Newton may have been wrong. His math was holding up pretty well and nobody was about to overturn calculus, but his physics seemed to be on shaky ground. Here is a simple review of his three laws of motion:

An object at rest remains at rest and an object in motion remains in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force.

Force equals Mass multiplied by Acceleration (F=ma).

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

To illustrate how important a discovery this was, let’s look at how we have used it. Believe it or not, we can send people to the Moon, land them on it, and bring them back without going beyond the physics and math that Newton gave us over three hundred years ago! Notwithstanding many naysayers (and many of them should have known better), after Newton’s time, space travel ceased to be a strictly scientific problem and became one of engineering; the wooden ships of his day were not quite up to the task.

But when we explore such extremes as speed, time, and gravity, we find that Newton’s physics break down. New thinking is called for. Enter Albert Einstein and the theory of relativity, which in 1905 ushered in a new era of science. But Newton’s theories still apply for everyday events (if something as fantastic as a trip to the Moon can be categorised that way).

Now let’s get back to a little scientific larceny. Rather, let’s try, because that’s all that we can ever hope to do. You do not pay a price for breaking the laws of nature — you pay simply for trying. At best your ‘payment’ would be in wasted time and effort on a failed experiment, but such things are rarely fun. But let’s go for the extreme. And there will be blood!

Observe a Darwin Award nominee standing at the top of a cliff. He’s just taken the brown acid (bummer) and decides he’s an eagle. With one flying leap he launches himself into the air and finds out that the laws of nature are immutable. There are four forces working in the science of aerodynamics: lift, thrust, weight, and drag. The first two are what help you fly; the second two are what try to prevent it. In the case of our non-hero, simple biophysics tells us that the human body does not possess the muscular structure to give us sufficient thrust, our arms do not provide sufficient lift, and therefore our weight and drag will win out.

As our eagle wannabe leaps from the cliff his arms flap with furious futility but produce no discernible lift. The thrust is really only produced by the attraction of the Earth’s gravity well, which is directly below him. Lastly, drag and weight assert their rightful force and aid the downward acceleration. In other words, the subject of this drug-addled experiment does not fly, but plummets inexorably to his doom.

In this sad scenario no scientific laws have been broken, but no doubt a few bones have. In fact, all the way down to his untimely end he will be obeying the laws of aerodynamics to the letter; there is no way he can do anything else. No lift. No flight. He will then obey the laws that govern our biology as he exsanguinates on the beach and his brain (or a reasonable facsimile in this case) shuts down. Thus endeth the lesson.

An open and shut case, really. Human laws are subject to myriad interpretations and as society changes so do they. But the laws of nature are fixed; only our understanding of them changes as we discover more about the workings of the Universe.

2 responses to “Science: It’s the law!”

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