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Cosmic blunders that have held back science

Big enough already: Portrait of Edward Pickering by Sarah Gooll Putnam (Courtesy: Harvard University Portrait Collection)

Big enough already: portrait of Edward Pickering by Sarah Gooll Putnam. (Courtesy: Harvard University Portrait Collection)

By Hamish Johnston

Can you name 10 blunders that have held back the progress of modern astronomy? Avi Loeb of Harvard University can, and he lists them in an essay entitled “On the benefits of promoting diversity of ideas”, which is posted on the arXiv preprint server.

Loeb argues that a common flaw of astronomers is to believe that they know the truth even when data are scarce. This, he argues, “occasionally leads to major blunders by which the scientific community makes the wrong strategic decision in its research plans, causing unnecessary delays in finding the truth”.

The first example he gives is the 1909 pronouncement by Edward Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory, that telescopes had reached their optimal size and that there was no point trying to make them any bigger.

Other blunders include ignoring spectrographic evidence that the Sun is made mostly of hydrogen because astronomers in the 1920s believed that the Sun and Earth must share the same composition.

Loeb’s article got me thinking about blunders that have held back other branches of physics. I suppose a classic blunder in condensed-matter physics was the belief that freestanding sheets of graphene couldn’t exist.

Can you think of any blunders in your field of physics? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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11 comments

  1. Dileep Sathe

    A cosmic error

    All planets of our solar system are orbiting the Sun in the same direction and this situation has prevented us from imagining the question: What would be the direction of force if a planet were orbiting the Sun in the opposite direction, not in the same direction? This question is important and should have received the attention of physicists 100 years ago – with the discovery of retrograde moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Hence I consider this feature of our solar system as a cosmic error – not blunder.

    Actually, this error makes our solar system a troubling one – though we have not paid sincere attention to that trouble for 100 years. More information of related problems can be found in my letter to the editor of CHANGE, My-June 2008, p. 5, title: Getting science right or feel free to contact me using dvsathe@gmail.com

  2. Trackback: Physics Viewpoint | Cosmic blunders that have held back science

  3. John Duffield

    “Can you think of any blunders in your field of physics?”

    I’m only an amateur, but my “field” is mainly relativity. And there’s a massive blunder there. The speed of light is not constant. See arXiv for papers about this. It’s considered something rather fringe. But then look at these Einstein quotes:

    1911: “If we call the velocity of light at the origin of coordinates c₀, then the velocity of light c at a place with the gravitation potential Φ will be given by the relation c = c₀(1 + Φ/c²)”.

    1912: “On the other hand I am of the view that the principle of the constancy of the velocity of light can be maintained only insofar as one restricts oneself to spatio-temporal regions of constant gravitational potential”.

    1913: “I arrived at the result that the velocity of light is not to be regarded as independent of the gravitational potential. Thus the principle of the constancy of the velocity of light is incompatible with the equivalence hypothesis”.

    1915: “the writer of these lines is of the opinion that the theory of relativity is still in need of generalization, in the sense that the principle of the constancy of the velocity of light is to be abandoned”.

    1916: “In the second place our result shows that, according to the general theory of relativity, the law of the constancy of the velocity of light in vacuo, which constitutes one of the two fundamental assumptions in the special theory of relativity and to which we have already frequently referred, cannot claim any unlimited validity. A curvature of rays of light can only take place when the velocity of propagation of light varies with position”.

    Some will brush this off by pointing to the word velocity. They’ll say it’s a vector quantity, and the direction changes. But they’re wrong. Go back to the original German, and what Einstein actually said was that a curvature of rays of light can only take place when “die Ausbreitungsgeschwindigkeit des Lichtes mit dem Orte variiert”. That translates to “the propagation speed of the light with the place varies”. Speed! Hamish, go and ask João Magueijo about it.

    • Abed Peerally

      Dudffield is right to find a problematic situation in the speed of light because there is as I will now explain in a different manner from him. First light is not a moving particle but most likely a moving wave packet. This is fundamentally different from a massive particle. While I have no problem seeing why light is massless, I simultaneously find that light is exceptional amongst physical realities in that it is always massless. As long the photon is massless it has to be of invariable speed. It does not matter whether it is travelling in a straight line or curving because it has to remain massless. There would however be changes in its frequency and wavelength but there should not to my mind be any issue of variable velocity. What I am saying has some deep implications of the realities of existence for light is an extraordinarily incredible piece of creative innovation for the universe and has unique qualities. The only other fabulous particle produced in the earliest moment of creation was some kind of Higgs Boson(although I do not at all believe it is still everywhere in the cosmos to impart mass to elementary particles).

      • Raymond A. Pohl

        Please Abed, read the work of Lene V. Hau, of Harvard, slowing and stopping a light beam by contact (and cooling) with a BEC of sodium crystals @ ~ 2 microKelvins. This could not happen unless light has “mass” or weight/volume. The idea that light or anything else has no “substance” needs to be eliminated from Physics textbooks.

      • Abed Peerally

        Raymond,

        Thanks for the comment which deals with an aspect that was not part of my comment. Duffield in his, mentioned variable velocity during natural motion and my comment dealt entirely with situations arising during the natural motion of photons.However I have a quite comprehensive concept about motion and gravitation and what you referred to as, the Hau work at Harvard of which I was aware, the issue is about experimentally stopping a beam of light. The conclusion in that such a circumstance expresses the occurrence of mass, volume and substance. This fits well with my concept except that I believe that photons have substance everywhere and that in its motion under natural conditions its velocity is constant.Extreme conditions like incredibly high temperatures, pressures etc can, I think, falsify scientific laws.

  4. Since the limiting velocity was discovered, Russell, Whitehead, and today’s causal set theorists have dealt with our 4-D manifold as a single-parameter causal web, simplifying physics tremendously. The mainstream has followed Einstein, clinging to a dual-parameter manifold, “space-time.” This has led to a quantum theory rife with paradox, untold complications, and the frank admission that physics is “crazy,” and can’t be given a coherent analysis into whole-and-part. Even at the expense of scientific realism, the reducibility of space-time to sheer temporal succession is blandly ignored, to the ongoing detriment of fundamental physics.

  5. Emmanuel

    It seems, a methodological blunder of main-stream particle flavor theory is the superfluous attention to symmetry approach in flavor physics in contrast to semi-empirical phenomenology – though the symmetry approach have not led to break-throe for decades, and from physics history just the latter approach preceded the arrival of quantum mechanics and other basic paradigms. It may be a deeper reason for that – one does not believe flavor physics is in need of a new paradigm. But, what about e.g. the accurate electron, muon and tau masses. Many researchers do believe in necessary fundamentally new flavor physics.

    • In regard to “symmetry approach,” I should mention that in the reduction of the manifold and the particles to causal set propagations, the symmetries of causal sets replace all the forces, achieving unification of the forces by reducing their number to zero. This is a nice example for evaluating “the symmetry approach” in its extreme manifestation.

  6. Trackback: Cosmic blunders that have held back science | History of Science Since Newton

  7. Laurence Cox

    I think that the article by Avi Loeb is, if anything, slightly unfair on Pickering. Of course, we all know with hindsight that he was wrong, but that doesn’t mean that based on his and others’ knowledge at the time it was unreasonable. Faced with the cloudier skies and poorer seeing in New England, he may well have considered that there would have been little advantage in larger telescopes there. Had Harvard decided to fund a large telescope in the North-East USA, would it have been as productive as a similar telescope in California? We can look at a similar decision a generation or so later when the Royal Greenwich Observatory decided to site their 2.5m-class Isaac Newton Telescope at Herstmonceaux in Sussex. Within a few years of that decision the advent of transatlantic air travel made it practical for astronomers to go almost anywhere in the world to utilise the best sites for telescopes; for an astronomer in Pickering’s day even to have located the Harvard telescope on a mountaintop in California would have required the astronomer to travel for several days on the train, followed by hours in the saddle to get up the mountain.

    We also need to remember that although Hubble got the credit for demonstrating the expansion of the universe, the first measurements showing redshifts of spiral galaxies were made by Vesto Slipher in 1912 at the Lowell Observatory, using a much smaller diameter telescope than the Lick reflector and that these results informed de Sitter’s ideas of an expanding universe based on his solution to Einstein’s equations.

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