Comments for Life As A Lab

Chapter 8: Null Experiments

I certainly agree with Piet that doing experiments like this, which are analogous to sky subtraction, are essential for quantitative results. Because, without proper calibration, you cannot have quantative results. However, in this case, a particular person is doing the "sky subtraction." And it's different for other people. Whereas, in astronomy - it's a lot easier - we all see the same sky. So, I'm wondering how far we can really carry this analogy?

-- SC- 17 May 2005

Thanks, SC, for this report! You are certainly right, that the analogy of sky subtraction in astronomy has only limited validity, since there we are dealing with a well defined procedure that falls within our normal way of looking at the world, whereas here the aim of the experiment is to find new ways of looking at the world, and at ourselves.

One thing that seems to occur for many people, when they first do this type of experiment, is that they form a picture of what it could possibly mean to do this experiment. That picture is rather boring, typically, and then when they actually do the experiment, it is tempting to enact variants of that boring picture. It is quite a challenge to enter this experiment with an open mind, and to be prepared to notice completely new aspects of the situation, of the way the subject is given together with the object, of fleeting feelings, notions, impressions, that don't easily fit within our normal frameworks.

So yes, my calibration image of sky subtraction should perhaps be augmented by another picture of staring into deep space, in a direction you don't expect to see anything familiar, and yet be open for the unexpected. The bottom line: given that our language is so specialized for describing a world of objects, it is very difficult even to formulate an experiment that starts dealing with the subject.

-- Piet Hut - 18 May 2005