Hey Bill Nye! Does Science Have All the Answers or Should We Do Philosophy Too?

Philosophy is a worthwhile endeavor, says Bill Nye the Science Guy, though the answers it offers are frequently limited by human rationality. Science, on the other hand, surprises us!

Mike: Hey Bill. Mike here. I’m a philosophy major in college right now and I'm looking for your opinion on the subject. Some of the scientists like Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson have brushed it off as a meaningless topic. I’m just wondering about your thoughts on the subject.

Bill Nye: Mike, Mike. This is a great question. I’m not sure that Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins, two guys I’m very well-acquainted with have declared philosophy as irrelevant and blown it off, in you term. I think that they’re just concerned that it doesn’t always give an answer that’s surprising. It doesn’t always lead you someplace that is inconsistent with common sense. And it gets back — it often, often gets back to this question. What is the nature of consciousness? Can we know that we know? Are we aware that we are aware? Are we not aware that we are aware? Is reality real or is reality not real and we are all living on a pingpong ball as part of a giant interplanetary pingpong game and we cannot sense it. These are interesting questions. But the idea that reality is not real or what you sense and feel is not authentic is something I’m very skeptical of. I mean I think that your senses, the reality that you interact with with light, heat, sense of touch, taste, smell, hearing, absolutely hearing. These are real things.

And to make a philosophical argument that they may not be real because you can’t prove — like, for example, you can’t prove that the sun will come up tomorrow. Not really, right. You can’t prove it until it happens. But I’m pretty confident it will happen. That’s part of my reality. The sun will come up tomorrow. And so philosophy is important for a while, but it’s also — I get were Neil and Richard might be coming from, where you start arguing in a circle where I think therefore I am. What if you don’t think about it? Do you not exist anymore? You probably still exist even if you’re not thinking about existence. And so, you know, this gets into the old thing if you drop a hammer on your foot, is it real or is it just your imagination? You can run that test, you know, a couple of times and I hope you come to agree that it’s probably real. It’s a cool question. It’s important, I think, for a lot of people to be aware of philosophy, but just keep in mind if you’re spending all this money on college this also may be where Neil and Richard are coming from. A philosophy degree may not lead you to, on a career path. It might, but it may not. And keep in mind humans made up philosophy too. Humans discovered or invented the process of science. Humans invented language. Humans invented philosophy. So keep that in mind that when you go to seek an absolute truth you’re a human seeking the truth. So there’s going to be limits. But there’s also going to be things beyond which it doesn’t matter. Drop the hammer on your foot and see if you don’t notice it.

What is the relationship between philosophy and science, the two most ancient ways we have of acquiring knowledge? Do they compete with one another? Are they complementary? Bill Nye the Science Guy suggests that, while philosophy is a worthwhile pursuit, it is science that allows us to escape the rigid confines of our own rationality. Whether the sun will rise tomorrow is a question fraught with endless skepticism. We in fact cannot say for certain whether it will or won't. The same is true for questions concerning our very existence: Are we perhaps merely brains stored in the vat of some evil genius? While skeptical philosophies stumble over these questions, science provides a way out, a way to get on with things, and a way to keep living in the world.

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Image source: NASA/Big Think
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If most stars form in binary pairs, what about our Sun? A new paper presents a model supporting the theory that the Sun may have started out as one member of a temporary binary system. There's a certain elegance to the idea — if it's true, this origin story could resolve some vexing solar-system puzzles, among them the genesis of the Oort Cloud, and the presence of massive captured objects like a Planet Nine.

The paper is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The Oort cloud

Oort Cloud graphic

Image source: NASA

Scientist believe that surrounding the generally flat solar system is a spherical shell comprised of more than a trillion icy objects more than a mile wide. This is the Oort cloud, and it's likely the source of our solar system's long-term comets — objects that take 200 years or more to orbit the Sun. Inside that shell and surrounding the planets is the Kuiper Belt, a flat disk of scattered objects considered the source of shorter-term comets.

Long-term comets come at us from all directions and astronomers at first suspected their origins to be random. However, it turns out their likely trajectories lead back to a shared aphelion between 2,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun to about 100,000 AU, with their different points of origin revealing the shell shape of the Oort cloud along that common aphelion. (An astronomical unit is the distance from the Sun to the Earth.)

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It's generally assumed that the Oort cloud is comprised of debris from the formation of the solar system and neighboring systems, stuff from other systems that we somehow captured. However, says paper co-author Amir Siraj of Harvard, "previous models have had difficulty producing the expected ratio between scattered disk objects and outer Oort cloud objects." As an answer to that, he says, "the binary capture model offers significant improvement and refinement, which is seemingly obvious in retrospect: most sun-like stars are born with binary companions."

"Binary systems are far more efficient at capturing objects than are single stars," co-author Ari Loeb, also of Harvard, explains. "If the Oort cloud formed as [indirectly] observed, it would imply that the sun did in fact have a companion of similar mass that was lost before the sun left its birth cluster."

Working out the source of the objects in the Oort cloud is more than just an interesting astronomical riddle, says Siraj. "Objects in the outer Oort Cloud may have played important roles in Earth's history, such as possibly delivering water to Earth and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Understanding their origins is important."

Planet 9

rendering of a planet in space

Image source: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)/NASA

The gravitational pull resulting from a binary companion to the Sun may also help explain another intriguing phenomenon: the warping of orbital paths either by something big beyond Pluto — a Planet 9, perhaps — or smaller trans-Neptunian objects closer in, at the outer edges of the Kuiper Belt.

"The puzzle is not only regarding the Oort clouds, but also extreme trans-Neptunian objects, like the potential Planet Nine," Loeb says. "It is unclear where they came from, and our new model predicts that there should be more objects with a similar orbital orientation to [a] Planet Nine."

The authors are looking forward to the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) , a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope expected to capture its first light from the cosmos in 2021. It's expected that the VRO will definitively confirm or dismiss the existence of Planet 9. Siraj says, "If the VRO verifies the existence of Planet Nine, and a captured origin, and also finds a population of similarly captured dwarf planets, then the binary model will be favored over the lone stellar history that has been long-assumed."

Missing in action

Lord and Siraj consider it unsurprising that we see no clear sign of the Sun's former companion at this point. Says Loeb, "Passing stars in the birth cluster would have removed the companion from the sun through their gravitational influence. He adds that, "Before the loss of the binary, however, the solar system already would have captured its outer envelope of objects, namely the Oort cloud and the Planet Nine population."

So, where'd it go? Siraj answers, "The sun's long-lost companion could now be anywhere in the Milky Way."

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