Thought-experiment August: (2) The gasatroids and their incredibly shrinking ladder

So let’s borrow from Henri Poincaré for our next Gedankenexperiment,

Suppose the kindly gas people of Sigma Alpha Tau wonder how high the heavens go. Sigma Alpha Tau is a Jovian-like gas giant wherein float the gasatroids who wander about in their world in peace and contentment and are happily filled with an insatiable curiosity. Their planet has a curious property, as you move toward the outer reaches it gets colder and the gasatroids shrink, as does all their ‘stuff’. In the outer reaches of their planet it is near absolute zero. They also have no concept of temperature (being the floaty sort of things they are).

They decide to investigate just how high the heavens are. So they contrive to build a great ladder into the sky. They start—taking sections of ladder to the top, securing them, then climbing higher and attaching more sections. But alas, unbeknownst to the good folk, they are shrinking proportionally as they go higher. As they move into the upper reaches of the atmosphere, they are attaching ever tinier sections of ladder to their shrinking apparatus. After spending fortunes upon fortunes of ladder sections they soon realize the truth. Their sky is of infinite size.

Now stipulate the physics and answer the question: “Because science is so tied to measurement, in what ways might our own efforts be subverted by changing scales?” The problem is more than about recognizing our assumptions (which of course is part of the problem), but explore in which ways might be we be undermined by not just unconceived alternatives, but unconceivable alternatives.

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8 comments to Thought-experiment August: (2) The gasatroids and their incredibly shrinking ladder

  • I liked the thought experiment.

  • Does the speed of light change at the outer reaches? Is mass no longer constant? If not, discerning this odd behavior would be quite possible.

    But assumptions are an important source of error, I agree. I just think they are MUCH more likely to be at fault when making untestable statements (Johnny got better because of a priesthood blessing) rather than hypothesis that must reconcile existing observations and which can be tested (Johnny has an immune system that attacked the virus–antibodies should now be present in his blood).

  • mt666

    If we cannot conceive the alternative we must suffer ever the consequences.

  • thirdfloor

    Why didn’t they just measure the propagation of sound waves?

  • bottomfeeder1

    I was thinking about this and it seems like there would be a limit to how far things could shrink. Obviously, it cannot scrink lower than the size of an atom. Right? I admit they might use a lot of ladders, but eventually they hit bottom.

  • Nephison2

    So your point is that science does not know everything? Now there is a thought.

  • Nephison2, I’m not sure that that would be very novel…the language of science itself (hypothesis/theory) suggests a deep hesitency to embrace certainty.

  • Ken Reed

    We always have a problem of “If I did not believe it, I would not have seen it.”

    The literature is full of this stuff – witness the science fads of the day, from Paul Erlich’s Death of the Ocean by 1985, to the famines that were supposed to happen before end of century.

    Acid rain, nuclear power plant dangers, exhaustion of oil, etc.

    Global warming? Real or hoped for?

    What position do I have to take to get the big grant?

    This is why many people don’t believe science – at least the science that the news as entertainment chooses to publicize and politicians use to grind their particular axes.

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