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November 3, 2003 11:29 AM

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Scientific Heresy 101

by Andrew Zimmerman Jones


I write this having just returned from the [SEMMer] Bash (a big summer picnic). It was a wonderful time, and it made me truly appreciate being involved with this group. There were, of course, many wonderful discussions. Two of these conversations merge together to cause the writing of this article.

The first was during the ExComm meeting, when our beloved LocSec Betsy Mark put forth a challenge for others to get involved with M-Pathy. We are Mensa, after all, and intellectual content should be encouraged. And the second conversation involved science and our arrogance in relation to it.

We have entered the year 2000. In fact, we are over halfway through the year 2000. As an IBM commercial has Avery Brooks (of Spencer: For Hire and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fame) proclaiming loudly, "Where are the flying cars? I was promised flying cars!"

But there are no flying cars. So many of the dreams portrayed over the years have fallen to dust when the calender bumped the year up a digit. By this point in human history, we were supposed to know everything, have built everything, and be everything that we can be.

And maybe we do know everything. To be sure, a lot of people seem to think so. Various books have come out over the last decade that indicate an 'end of science.' Anything that we have left to do is just mopping up the details. We have to make everything neat and tidy, but the real work is done. This century has found so much progress in the understanding of the world that there's little more to do.

But is this really the case? I like to think not. I like to think that there's a lot more to learn and discover than what we now know. But where will this new knowledge come from?

In 1924, Max Planck recalled the advice given by Philip von Jolly, his teacher, in 1874. "He portrayed to me physics as a highly developed, almost fully matured science . . . Possibly in one or another nook there would be perhaps a dust particle or a small bubble to be examined and classified, but the system as a whole stood there fairly secured, and theoretical physics approached . . . that degree of perfection which . . . geometry has had already for centuries."

Anyone who has paid any attention to physics during the last century knows that this proclamation, in 1874, has proven with hindsight to be one of the most potent examples of counting unhatched chickens in the history of the world. Physics is now a totally different field than what it was, with both relativity and quantum mechanics having been introduced to the mix since then.

But still, we seem to think we know a lot. It's hard to imagine that something new and totally unexpected will happen again to shift our worldview. Of course, if we could imagine it, it wouldn't be totally unexpected, would it?

In 1905, a patent clerk - who had done some insightful work with the photoelectric effect - published a paper. And from that point on, things got very strange in physics. Now, 95 years later, it became perfectly acceptable to use the theory of special relativity to talk about distances, time and mass changing around with very fast speeds. Energy and mass are equivalent ways of talking about the same thing, when handled with appropriate mathematics. Throw quantum mechanics into the mix, and you have a very convoluted system, which would have given any nineteenth century physicist an aneurism just trying to contemplate.

In fact, they'd have said you were nuts. The same way that biologists in 1546 told Girolamo Fracastoro that he was nuts (if they even paid attention to him), when he proposed a rudimentary germ theory in his book De Contagione. Microscopes eventually revealed a world of 'little animals.' Still the controversy over this idea lasted until Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch settled the matter by isolating specific bacterial agents, in the late nineteenth century. That's three centuries between the time the idea was originally proposed (to our knowledge) and the time that it was accepted as a scientific truth.

Are we so truly arrogant to believe that it couldn't happen again? I like to think that none of us are. But I also realize that the history of science shows us how fanatic the scientific community can be in clinging to its beliefs. Galileo was held for heresy for speaking out against established church doctrine, but in the time since there have been a number of people who have risked their careers on outrageous theories. Some of these have panned out, and some have not.

Does that mean that these 'scientific heresies' are false? Not necessarily. Does it mean that they're true? Not necessarily. Does it mean that it's worth asking the question, regardless? Of course.

A recent article in Discover magazine detailed a scientific theory which provoked a biologist to say that the book in which it was published is one of the best justifications for book burning he has ever read.

What sort of heretical statements could cause something like that? What sort of passion could cause a man of science to burn any book? Aren't scientists supposed to be dispassionate about proposed theories? Is there a point where ridiculing and dismissing a proposed idea is alright? Are we wise enough to tell where that point is?

So, in the interest of intellectual stimulation, I have decided to champion the scientific heresies. For those who might ask why I'd do this, there are a few reasons. First, I get bored easily. Second, I enjoy writing. Third, I'm fairly well suited for it, having a degree in physics and a minor in philosophy. (Don't worry, I won't get too technical.)

Finally, the world needs more heresies. It needs more people who are willing to bring to light the absurd ("Push something really fast and time slows down... What kind of medication are you taking?"), because that is very often where the truth might lie. So maybe we can turn our minds toward discovering those hidden truths.

And, with luck, some will be so outrageous as to force our members to write in, listing reasons why they can't possibly be true. That would, I think, be a very nice thing to see.

© 2000 by Andrew Zimmerman Jones