Archive | April 2012

Science and Anomalies

Just this last evening, the gang came over to my place to do some gaming, in our urban fantasy GURPS campaign, and we kicked eldritch butt! After giving short shrift to a rogue supernatural being, our team had to deal with a cult summoning an eldritch horror, a greater servitor of the Nameless gods, into our world.

Well, after much wanton mayhem and gratuitous destruction of cultists, finishing up with a rocket-propelled grenade fired into the screaming horror’s maw (according to the following formula: Grenade + Open maw = Asploding horror, with eldritch goo flying everywhere and violating several local EPA environmental regulations) we discovered that according to the laws governing reality on our game-setting’s universe, the appearance of that sort of being, of the immense power it had (we had to nickle & dime it to death for the grenade shot to have a chance) should not have happened – “The stars were not right,” as H. P. Lovecraft would have said, and that implied a seeming violation of known physical (and in this particular supernatural setting, metaphysical,) laws.

…in short, it was an anomaly according to the known science and metascience of the setting.

First, a few pics from the early hours of the game session:

Mr. Eccles plots evil while enjoying the view outside...

The gang readies for bringing wrath upon the bad guys!

Mr. Eccles entertains us and himself by chasing a laser pointer's dot. Kittens never fail to be amused!

Okay, I’ve tortured you enough. The character I play in this campaign, as I’ve written here, is a scientist who is one of the foremost authorities on eldritch creatures in theory and application, even being able to give a comprehensive rundown of the habitats, biology, and especially the weaknesses of many of the sorts of alien monsters Lovecraft wrote about.

If you’re having trouble with nameless horrors, he’s the man you call to get rid of them. Back off…He’s a scientist.

How does this relate to science in the real world?

First, we have at any one time only a provisional understanding of physical laws, even the most well-established, always open to revision when anomalies, physical behavior of phenomena out of keeping with our current understanding, happen, and this occurs even within a given overall framework of theory, popularly called a paradigm as coined by Thomas Kuhn.

Anomalies seem to violate the known behavior of the universe in the area observed, but this bodes not ill for science, since scientific laws are descriptive, not prescriptive as human legal codes are: If we see a physical system misbehaving, we don’t, as Professor James Hall said, pull out the whips and punish the phenomenon for violations of natural laws, we try to identify what was causing the apparent anomaly and use the new data to rethink, to reformulate our understanding of natural laws to fit the new data.

We fit theories to facts, not vice-versa.

We find the courage to admit to ourselves that we misdescribed the law in question, amend our description and move forward to a better, clearer understanding of the governing physical principles in question. This reflects the inherent honesty and strength of scientific methods in that they lead to step-by-step genuine progress in our knowledge, far from the impossible absolute certainty demanded by religions and spiritual traditions.

In the game setting our characters play in, the same applies, though even the “supernatural” of the setting has laws governing what special powers can do what, how well, in what way, and how often, making it with these limits subject to the laws of a sort of arcane mystical science.

This is necessary for both game-balance and for plausibility in the game, though this is not what most people think of concerning real-world supernaturally-based belief systems and doctrines.


Most modern science is less like the Kuhnian version, with its dichotomous periods of normal science alternating with paradigm shifts, and more resembles a continuum between normal science and the radical paradigm shifts, and along this continuum, incremental progress, punctuated the occasional anomaly and its resolution here and there.

These are what drive much modern science.

Ultimately, science as a whole doesn’t declare any documented phenomenon impossible, though before it’s so documented, individual scientists may, but rather over time and further research, science incorporates the newly discovered behavior of a physical system into its body of knowledge.

And isn’t doing the work to find out, to actually look, much better, much more satisfying, than throwing up one’s hands in despair at a poorly understood (to you, someone you know, or even anyone else) part of nature and essentially giving up by calling it magic?

To me, that would be simply arrogant, thinking one’s own knowledge to define the limit of all knowledge, and the ultimate in intellectual lassitude.

Science thrives on weirdness.

Caturday’s Astronomy Pix for April 22-28, 2012

Incredible new Hubble pix: Barred Spiral Galax...

Incredible new Hubble pix: Barred Spiral Galaxy NGC 6217 (Photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video)

Flowing Barchan Sand Dunes on Mars

Evaporating Blobs of the Carina Nebula

Rosetta Approaches Asteroid Lutetia

Meteor Over Crater Lake

Morning, Moon, and Mercury

Jupiter and the Moons of Earth

Sutter’s Mill Meteorite


Bolide (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Caturday’s Astronomy Pix is a weekly installment, published each weekend between 7:31 and 8:30 AM, with links to each daily entry on NASA’s website Astronomy Picture of the Day. I hope you enjoy looking at these often breathtaking images as much as I do.