Research MagazineThe Stars Dance. Controlled Plurality


Astrophysicists are familiar with the phenomenon of so-called parallaxes: if an object is observed from different points of view, it seems to change position – the stars appear to dance. For scientists, used to questioning things and theories and thus changing perspective, this raises the question of whether there can ever be absolute knowledge or whether everything is “absolutely” relative – depending on the point of view. Is there such a thing as absolute truth or absolute precision in science? At the same time, do we need to impose limits on relativisation in order to safeguard at least a few immutable values?

In the natural sciences, explains material scientist Jana Zaumseil, only very few values, numbers or theories are regarded as absolute. These include the so-called natural constants, which are used to define units. Natural scientists are torn between the wish to explain the world in absolute and unequivocal terms and the knowledge that any assumption they make could be completely wrong. It is impossible to describe the world in its entirety, stresses Zaumseil: “It’s an illusion to believe that if we only had all the data we would know how the world works; that if we could only find the right algorithm, we’d know the answer.”

Philosopher of religion and theologian Philipp Stoellger doubts the existence of absolute truth because to him, truth is always a matter of perspective, and hence relative. Nevertheless, he criticises the standard belief of cultural and humanities scholars that everything is relative: “While this sounds like absolute tolerance, from a certain point onward, it becomes absolute intolerance. Because when someone does maintain that some things are essentially true, this is immediately seen as a threat to this universal relativity.” He believes there must be limits to what is negotiable – for instance, we do not want to debate human rights because we regard them as absolute in a manner similar to the natural constants.

Interview (PDF)

Kapitelbild RuCa 14 / Kap 1.1 Die Sterne tanzen

Issue 14 • 2019: ABSOLUT & RELATIV

More than one hundred years ago Albert Einstein revolutionised science with his theories of general and special relativity. The insights these theories unveiled are among the topics covered in the ABSOLUTE & RELATIVE issue of the research magazine "Ruperto Carola". The diametrical pairing in the title also generally reflects one of the basic tenets of science which thrives from a change in perspective. When things are called into question and viewed from another angle, new findings and discoveries can emerge. Is there anything that is truly permanent, or is everything in fact relative? The sixteen articles from twenty-two Heidelberg University scientists address this basic question along with other aspects of the topic.

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The research magazine "Ruperto Carola" reports on scientific findings and ongoing research projects at Heidelberg University. Each issue of the magazine is dedicated to a socially relevant topic on which Heidelberg researchers present their scientific work across disciplines and subjects. In easy-to-understand language, the authors show the myriad ways in which research is conducted at Heidelberg University.

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