Celebrated science fiction author Isaac Asimov is as legendary as the stories he crafted. His numerous books sparkled with riveting characters, engrossing worlds, and thought-provoking themes, crafted from the raw ingredients of intellect and experience, and welded together with immense dedication. This dedication extended beyond his books and biochemistry lessons (Asimov was a professor at Boston University) to the great many people who reached out to him in some fashion.
"My estimate is that Isaac received about 100,000 letters in his professional career," his brother Stanley wrote in 1996. "And with the compulsiveness that has to be a character trait of a writer of almost 500 books, he answered 90 percent of them."
One of these correspondences was with a self-described "English Lit major" who challenged what he perceived as Asimov's intellectualy superior ignorance for expressing "a certain gladness at living in a century in which we finally got the basis of the universe straight."
You see, knowledge, in Asimov's view, is not relegated to the black and white world of right or wrong, it is ever-evolving from one stage of wrongness to another. Ideally, knowledge advances by moving from wrong, to less wrong, to even less wrong, and so on and so forth.
He elucidated his point with the example of Flat Earth theory. Thousands of years ago, many considered the world to be flat, a patently ridiculous observation by modern standards, but not unreasonable back then. After all, Earth's surface curves a mere eight inches per mile, so it's tough to fault our forebears for missing this discrepancy with their limited measuring tools.
Later on, learned figures like Aristotle reasoned that Earth was a sphere. Asimov described their observations.
But guess what? They were wrong, too! The Earth is not a perfect sphere.
"Isaac Newton first proposed that Earth was not perfectly round," Charles Choi wrote for Scientific American. "Instead, he suggested it was an oblate spheroid—a sphere that is squashed at its poles and swollen at the equator. He was correct and, because of this bulge, the distance from Earth's center to sea level is roughly 21 kilometers (13 miles) greater at the equator than at the poles."
Nice job, Newton! But sorry, you're technically wrong, too! We now know that Earth isn't just oblate at the equator; it's actually a bumpy, shifting, sphere-shaped mass, uneven and occasionally off-kilter, and this is just the least wrong description so far. But still, we are far closer to being right than when we started! This is how science-based knowledge advances!
"Once scientists get hold of a good concept they gradually refine and extend it with greater and greater subtlety as their instruments of measurement improve. Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete," Asimov wrote.
But we cannot choose what is truth. We can, however, choose to be less wrong.
Originally published on RealClearScience.