Words Have Meaning Part I: Facts

The universe is a vast, confusing, and changing cosmic terrarium. We are confined by its rules and trapped by its expanding boundaries. In an effort to add some structure to the chaos, hone our understanding of the mechanics, and persist information beyond our generation, we use words, numbers, pictures, labels, diagrams, standards, and many more tools to calculate, predict, record, and preserve observations about the various universal processes that surround us.

When we assign a verifiable value to an observation based on our best collective understanding, we call that value a “fact.” Facts are tricky because they represent the current understanding of an experience. That distinction is important because it’s easy to become disheartened when journalists or scientists discover new information or issue updates about a phenomenon that was long regarded as factual. Facts can change through further observation, experience, and the discovery of more detailed experimental evidence. So what do we believe? Are facts rock solid or can we assume that nothing can truly be known?

Let’s use Earth and Sun for examples. The understandings of Earth’s shape, its place in the solar system, and Sun’s place in the universe has changed over time.

It was an understood fact that Earth was flat in pre-classical Greece. Aristotle eventually showed evidence that Earth was in fact spherical. For a time, Earth’s flatness was a fact. Using our vast technology, we know now that Earth is an ellipsoid, but it wasn’t so easily understood in the past. Pre-classical Greeks were eventually proven to be incorrect and thus the facts changed.… Continue reading