I was listening to a book on cd recently when the speaker made an interesting claim. He claimed that “what is a scientific question” can change over time. His example was that once the question of the origin of the universe was not a scientific question, because we had no evidence for such a beginning. Then Edwin Hubble discovered the expansion of the universe, and suddenly we could see that looking out into the universe pointed us toward a time when the universe was very different. Suddenly the origin of the universe was a scientific question.

I started thinking of other examples. The classic one, that I wrote about before, is the composition of the stars question. Once we had no way of knowing, so the question was not a scientific one. Then we discovered that we could read the composition of a star in its spectrum. Once we couldn’t know the true age of certain fossils, only their relative ages. Then we discovered radiometric dating, and suddenly dinosaurs and other old things had a numeric age.

I’m wondering if it ever goes the other way. Once we thought the universe was all clockwork; if you knew the initial conditions exactly, you could exactly predict the future. Then Heisenberg and the uncertainty principle came along and knocked that idea out. But is that really a scientific question becoming a non-scientific one? I don’t think so, because the idea was never a real prediction about the future, just a theoretical idealization. We never could know the initial conditions so perfectly, anyway.

So I’m wondering. Is it true that the “scientific question bubble” always gets bigger, and never smaller? Does a question ever go from a scientific one to a non-scientific one?

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