The scariest things in life can be those that are imagined rather than seen. Science, in a way, is the process of taking the seen and making it not-scary through understanding and explanation. But, what of the unseen? Too often in physical science we conflate the unseen with the impossible. Take the quotation below that I ran across today which, in effect, I have heard uttered many times from physical scientists:
“We didn’t think it was possible because we had never seen it before.” (quotation I have altered to anonymize)
This kind of reasoning frustrates me continually. Science is fantastic at observing the physical world but simultaneously fantastically poor. We can be lulled to sleep by our considerable skills. In 2022, data pours in to scientists in deluges. We have so much data that we don’t know what to do with it all. Despite this, there are (at least) two reasons we might never have observed something possible. 1) Rare events happen rarely. 2) We might not be looking. So, rather than being lulled to sleep by our data richness, I think we should consider the value in being rousted by our collective naivety.
The scientific enterprise is grounded by observations. That grounding prevents people like me, who may otherwise be so inclined, from living in an imagined world. But, having failed to observe something in the past is not the same thing as its being impossible or even, necessarily, uncommon. Science requires us to be looking (an indeed it compels us to look) in order to test an idea. A lack of observations should not preclude all attempts to consider that which is consistent with existing knowledge.
If it does, then Lisa Simpson has a Tiger-Repelling Rock to sell us all. Unseen tigers are scary.