Wednesday, 12 November 2014

When scientists show their claws

The unfortunate Thomas Young
With their media of image of being cool, emotionless brainboxes, it might be surprising to learn that scientists can be just as catty as anyone else, and though science is a collaborative business where it's par for the course to tear apart other people's theories and then go out for a drink with them, it's still the case that personal dislikes sometimes triumph over rational argument.

One of the most famous scientific quotes in history, from Isaac Newton is often thought to be a masked insult. Newton, writing to his hated arch rival Robert Hooke, approximately quoted a line from Robert Burton when he wrote 'If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.' The reason many think this was a piece of nastiness was not just because Newton was making it clear that he didn't owe much to Hooke, but also because Hooke was anything but a giant physically.

The scientific claws come out in all kinds of subtle ways. I'm currently reading a new book on quantum biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden. In one chapter, Al-Khalili (I assume it's him, as this is a reference to quantum physics) makes the effort to point out four times that quantum entanglement does not produce 'paranormal effects' (his inverted commas) like telepathy. He refers to those who come up with such theories as charlatans and uses what, since the Simon Singh/BCA affair must now be considered the 'B' word when he says: 'despite the bogus claims of telepathy.'

You might think this is just general commentary rather than backbiting. However, if you know the quantum entanglement field, it's hard not to be aware that Nobel Prize winning physicist Brian Josephson has publicly suggested that there might be an explanation for telepathy in quantum entanglement. Which does put these remarks in a whole new light.

However, my favourite insult is probably one I've just revisited in preparing a new edition of my first popular science book Light Years. When Thomas Young first came up with his evidence that Newton was wrong and that light was, as Descartes, Huygens and others had suggested, a wave, he got considerable opposition from the British establishment. I want to leave you with the commentary in the Edinburgh Review from Henry Brougham, at the time a young lawyer and writer, and later Lord Chancellor. (Thanks, by the way, to John Gribbin for pointing out that this is probably a double insult, as the reference to the 'ladies of the Royal Institution' may well be a dig at the way the head of that then upstart institution, the Brian Cox of his day, Humphrey Davy, had a reputation for making the ladies swoon.)

We may now dismiss for the present, the feeble lucubrations of this author, in which we have searched without success for some traces of learning, acuteness or ingenuity that might compensate his evident deficiency in the powers of solid thinking, calm and patient investigation, and successful development of the laws of nature by steady and modest observation of her operations. Has the Royal Society so degraded its publications into bulletins of fashionable theories for the ladies of the Royal Institution? Let the Professor continue to amuse his audience with an endless variety of such harmless trifles, but in the name of Science, let them not find admittance into the venerable repository which contains the names of Newton, Boyle, Cavendish...
Image from Wikipedia

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