Some thoughts on the relationship between “scientific questions” and “historical questions”…

Is the question “Was Bradley Bowen born on a Wednesday?” a scientific question? Could the answer to this question be discovered and confirmed (in principle if not in practice) purely by the use of scientific methods? I believe the answer to this question is “No”, but because of the qualification “in principle” it is difficult to be certain.

If the answer to this question is “Yes”, then we have found at least one question about a recent historical event that can be resolved (in principle) purely by scientific methods, and that would suggest that other historical questions, perhaps about not-so-recent events, could also be resolved purely by scientific methods (at least in principle). It would suggest, for example, that we could in principle determine whether Socrates was born on a Wednesday by using only scientific methods, and without using any ordinary historical methods.

If “in principle” just means that such scientific confirmation of a claim is a logical possibility, then the claim is a very weak one, and that makes it a difficult claim to disprove.

Consider the following strong claim:

** 1. There are at least a dozen unicorns in every forest.**

Because this is a strong claim, it is easy to disprove. Just find one small forest and search it thoroughly. If you find no unicorns, then the claim is disproved. But weaker claims may not be so easy to disprove. The following claims are in descending order of strength:

**2. There is at least one unicorn in every forest.**

**3. There is at least one unicorn in one forest on the Earth.**

**4. There has been,**

*at some point in the history of the Earth*, at least one unicorn in one forest.**5. There has been,**

*at some point in the history of the universe*, at least one unicorn in one forest*on some planet or other*.Claim (5) is virtually impossible to disprove, because it is a very weak claim. In general, the weaker a claim is, the more difficult it will be to disprove the claim.

If the claim that one can in principle determine whether “Bradley Bowen was born on a Wednesday” is a true claim using only scientific methods, without using any ordinary historical methods (i.e. critical examination of historical records and documents) is a claim about what is logically possible, then I’m not sure if my imagination and my knowledge of scientific methods is up to the task of disproving this weak claim.

One thing I can do, however, is to try to prove the claim to be true, and if I fail, that will provide at least some reason, though an inconclusive reason, to doubt the weak claim. So, I will try to show that it is possible to determine that a person was born on a Wednesday using only scientific methods to make the determination.

Suppose that my father was a research physicist, and that shortly before I was to be born, he had designed and constructed an atomic clock in the laboratory where he worked. In honor of my impending birth, Dr. Bowen built a remote control to kickoff the atomic clock at the precise moment of my birth. Suppose further that he carries out this plan, and at the precise moment of my birth, Dr. Bowen uses a remote control to start the atomic clock (starting at: 0.000 hours).

Several weeks later, Dr. Doofenshmirtz, a fellow research physicist who works at the lab with my father, asks “Was your son born on a Wednesday?” Dr. Bowen scratches his head, and tries to remember what day of the week I was born, but he cannot recall this. “What is the date of your son’s birth?” asks Dr. Doofenshmirtz. My dad, being a bit of an absent-minded-professor type, is unable to recall the date I was born, so looking at a calendar for the current year will not help determine the day of the week of my birth.

Then my brilliant father comes up with an idea. He can check the atomic clock that was started at the precise moment of my birth, and that will show the exact number of hours, minutes, and seconds that have elapsed since the time of my birth. He can then work backwards from the present day (let’s say it was a Wednesday at noon when he checks the atomic clock), calculating 24 hours per day, and seven days per week (thus 168 hours/week).

Suppose that at noon on a Wednesday, the atomic clock shows that 987.331 hours have elapsed since the moment of my birth. 987 hours is less than six weeks (= 1,008 hours), and more than five weeks (= 840 hours). Exactly five weeks prior it would be noon on Wednesday, so 840 hours prior to reading the atomic clock, it was Wednesday at noon. This means that my birth was 147.331 hours prior to a Wednesday at noon (987.331 – 840 = 147.331). Six days is 144 hours, so I was born a little more than six days prior to Wednesday at noon. Exactly six days prior to a Wednesday at noon, it would be noon on Thursday. So, I was born 3.331 hours prior to noon on a Thursday. Three hours prior to noon on Thursday is 9:00am on Thursday, so I was born 0.331 hours prior to 9:00am on a Thursday, which means I was born about 20 minutes prior to 9:00am on Thursday, which means I was born at about 8:40am on Thursday; thus, I was not born on a Wednesday.

This is an imaginary example, but it is a somewhat realistic one. There are such things as atomic clocks, and I’m sure that they can run for several weeks, if not for several years. Nothing in this example involves the violation of a law of nature. It might be a bit odd for a physicist to use a remote control to start an atomic clock at the precise moment of his son’s birth, but this is not completely absurd. So, this example shows that scientific evidence could be used to determine whether or not a person was born on a Wednesday. However, the question at issue was a bit more specific than that. Does this example show that one can (in principle if not in practice) determine whether a person was born on a Wednesday by *using only scientific methods*?

This article is archived.