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Wining the Nobel Prize is a lottery


Truth in science
Francis Crick Scientist
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In point of view of science, there is no absolute truth. What you’re doing is trying to make models of the world and find which model of the world is… fits best. Why should something be true? Your… your brain is making a model of the world. There’s not necessarily truth out there.

[Q] But… but surely it’s true that the structure of DNA is… is a double helix?

You want to be very careful like that because, of course, some of the genetic material is single stranded DNA. It’s very difficult to make a… a statement, especially in biology, in which you won’t find minor exceptions. I mean, Newtonian mechanics is true unless you get… get up to speeds approaching the velocity of light or if you get under certain conditions usually of very low mass when you have to use quantum mechanics, you see. But for sending a… sending something… a… a satellite or something… to go and… go and look at one of the major planets or something like that, Newton mechanics is perfectly ok. Well, is it true? Well, the answer is it’s not absolutely true – it’s true within that the very large range… range of things but not at the extremes. So what do you call that?

[Q] So the… the scientific enterprise, I mean, it isn’t… it isn’t just to find out what’s true and what isn’t true, it’s to… it’s to improve on….

 Well, we… we use that terminology, you know, in everyday life. We do say I don’t think that’s true. And you say that in science as well. But if you’re then being very pressed as to what you actually mean, then you have to make a more cautious statement the way I did. But in ordinary… in ordinary, everyday life, you know, you… people will tell you something and you’ll say, I bet that’s wrong, you see. Or… or you can say that sounds right to me, or something like that, you see. Or you can say look, we’ve got this observation and this observation and this observation. This seems right. What’s your objection? That type of thing, you see. So, in every… in everyday conversation among scientists, they will certainly use the word 'true', but they won’t necessarily mean it in the absolute sense that a layman would use it.

The late Francis Crick, one of Britain's most famous scientists, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. He is best known for his discovery, jointly with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, of the double helix structure of DNA, though he also made important contributions in understanding the genetic code and was exploring the basis of consciousness in the years leading up to his death in 2004.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Isaac Newton

Duration: 2 minutes, 15 seconds

Date story recorded: 1993

Date story went live: 08 January 2010