Science grows on the fertilizer of disagreement

At the weekend German television presented me with all three episodes of Jim Al-Khalili’s documentary on the history of electricity, Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity. On the whole I found it rather tedious largely because I don’t like my science or history of science served up by a star presenter who is the centre of the action rather than the science itself, a common situation with the documentaries of ‘he who shall not be named’-TPBoPS, and NdGT. It seems that we are supposed to learn whatever it is that the documentary nominally offers by zooming in on the thoughtful features of the presenter, viewing his skilfully lit profile or following him as he walks purposefully, thoughtfully, meaningfully or pensively through the landscape. What comes out is “The Brian/Neil/Jim Show” with added science on the side, which doesn’t really convince me, but maybe I’m just getting old.

However my criticism of the production style of modern television science programmes is not the real aim of this post, I’m much more interested in the core of the first episode of Al-Khalili’s documentary. The episode opened and closed with the story of Humphrey Davy constructing the, then, largest battery in the world in the cellars of the Royal Institution in order to make the first ever public demonstration of an arc lamp and thus to spark the developments that would eventually lead to electric lighting. Having started here the programme moved back in time to the electrical experiments of Francis Hauksbee at the Royal Society under the auspices of Isaac Newton. Al-Khalili then followed the development of electrical research through the eighteenth-century, presenting the work of the usual suspects, Steven Gray, Benjamin Franklin etc., until we arrived at the scientific dispute between the two great Italian physicists Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta that resulted in the invention of the Voltaic pile, the forerunner of the battery and the first producer of an consistent electrochemical current. All of this was OK and I have no real criticisms, although I was slightly irked by constant references to ‘Hauksbee’s’ generator when the instrument in question was an adaption suggested by Newton of an invention from Otto von Guericke, who didn’t get a single name check. What did irritate me and inspired this post was the framing of the Galvani-Volta dispute.

Al-Khalili, a gnu atheist of the milder variety, presented this as a conflict between irrational religious persuasion, Galvani, and rational scientific heuristic, Volta, culminating in a victory for science over religion. In choosing so to present this historical episode Al-Khalili, in my opinion, missed a much more important message in scientific methodology, which was in fact spelt out in the fairly detailed presentation of the successive stages of the dispute. Galvani made his famous discovery of twitching frog’s legs and after a series of further experiments published his theory of animal electricity. Volta was initially impressed by Galvani’s work and at first accepted his theory. Upon deeper thought he decided Galvani’s interpretation of the observed phenomena was wrong and conducted his own series of result to prove Galvani wrong and establish his own theory. Volta having published his refutation of Galvani’s theory, the latter not prepared to abandon his standpoint also carried out a series of new experiments to prove his opponent wrong and his own theory right. One of these experiments led Volta to the right explanation, within the knowledge framework of the period, and to the discovery of the Voltaic pile. What we see here is a very important part of scientific methodology, researchers holding conflicting theories spurring each other on to new discoveries and deeper knowledge of the field under examination. The heuristics of the two are almost irrelevant, what is important here is the disagreement as research motor. Also very nicely illustrated is discovery as an evolutionary process spread over time rather than the infamous eureka moment.

The inspiration produced from watching Al-Khalili’s story of the invention of the battery chimes in very nicely with another post I was planning on writing. In a recent blog post, Joe Hanson of “it’s OKAY to be SMART” wrote about Galileo and the first telescopic observations of sunspots at the beginning of the seventeenth-century. The post is OK as far as it goes, even managing to give credit to Thomas Harriot and Johannes Fabricius, however it contains one truly terrible sentence that caused my heckles to rise. Hanson wrote:

Although Galileo’s published sunspot work was the most important of its day, on account of the “that’s no moon” smackdown it delivered to the Jesuit scientific community, G-dub was not the first to observe the solar speckles.

Here we have another crass example of modern anti-religious sentiment of a science writer getting in the way of sensible history of science. What we are talking about here is not the Jesuit scientific community but the single Jesuit physicist and astronomer Christoph Scheiner, who famously became embroiled in a dispute on the nature of sunspots with Galileo. Once again we also have an excellent example of scientific disagreement driving the progress of scientific research. Scheiner and Galileo discovered sunspots with their telescopes independently of each other at about the same time and it was Scheiner who first published the results of his discoveries together with an erroneous theory as to the nature of sunspots. Galileo had at this point not written up his own observations, let alone developed a theory to explain them. Spurred on by Scheiner’s publication he now proceeded to do so, challenging Scheiner’s claim that the sunspots where orbiting the sun and stating instead that they were on the solar surface. An exchange of views developed with each of the adversaries making new observations and calculations to support their own theories. Galileo was not only able to demonstrate that sunspots were on the surface of the sun but also to prove that the sun was rotating on its axis, as already hypothesised by Johannes Kepler. Scheiner, an excellent astronomer and mathematician, accepted Galileo’s proofs and graciously acknowledge defeat. However whereas Galileo now effectively gave up his solar observations Scheiner developed new sophisticated observation equipment and carried out an extensive programme of solar research in which he discovered amongst other things that the sun’s axis is tilted with respect to the ecliptic. Here again we have two first class researchers propelling each other to new important discoveries because of conflicting views on how to interpret observed phenomena.

My third example of disagreement as a driving force in scientific discovery is not one that I’ve met recently but one whose misrepresentation has annoyed me for many years, it concerns Albert Einstein and quantum mechanics. I have lost count of the number of times that I’ve read some ignorant know-it-all mocking Einstein for having rejected quantum mechanics. That Einstein vehemently rejected the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is a matter of record but his motivation for doing so and the result of that rejection is often crassly misrepresented by those eager to score one over the great Albert. Quantum mechanics as initial presented by Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg et. al. contradicted Einstein fundamental determinist metaphysical concept of physics. It was not that he didn’t understand it, after all he had made several significant contributions to its evolution, but he didn’t believe it was a correct interpretation of the real physical world. Einstein being Einstein he didn’t just sit in the corner and sulk but actively searched for weak points in the new theory trying to demonstrate its incorrectness. There developed a to and fro between Einstein and Bohr, with the former picking holes in the theory and the latter closing them up again. Bohr is on record as saying that Einstein through his informed criticism probably contributed more to the development of the new theory than any other single physicist. The high point of Einstein’s campaign against quantum mechanics was the so-called EPR (Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen) paradox, a thought experiment, which sought to show that quantum mechanics as it stood would lead to unacceptable or even impossible consequences. On the basis of EPR the Irish physicist John Bell developed a testable theorem, which when tested showed quantum mechanics to be basically correct and Einstein wrong, a major step forward in the establishment of quantum physics. Although proved wrong in the end Einstein’s criticism of and disagreement with quantum mechanics contributed immensely to the theories evolution.

The story time popular presentations of the history of science very often presents the progress of science as a series of eureka moments achieved by solitary geniuses, their results then being gratefully accepted by the worshiping scientific community. Critics who refuse to acknowledge the truth of the new discoveries are dismissed as pitiful fools who failed to understand. In reality new theories almost always come into being in an intellectual conflict and are tested, improved and advanced by that conflict, the end result being the product of several conflicting minds and opinions struggling with the phenomena to be explained over, often substantial, periods of time and are not the product of a flash of inspiration by one single genius. As the title says, science grows on the fertilizer of disagreement.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Physics, History of science, Myths of Science

17 responses to “Science grows on the fertilizer of disagreement

  1. The usual popular narratives don’t just glorify the scientific genius as a magic hero; they implicitly vilify the losers. The framing suggests that getting something wrong is a moral failing as if everybody could have avoided error if only they had tried harder or were more sincere or possessed a purer will to rationality and abjured prejudice and superstition. Is it too much of a stretch to notice the analogy between this way of distinguishing winners and losers and the theological distinction between the elect and the preterite? The Calvinists used to insist that the proper interpretation of scripture was obvious to any good man so that any erroneous interpretation, i.e., any non-Calvinist interpretation, was evidence of perverse intention. The pop histories imply that any rational person would have seen that the sun is in the middle, that phlogiston doesn’t explain combustion, that God does play dice with the universe, etc. It’s all clear as day to virtuous readers of the book of nature. Being wrong is not a matter of betting on the wrong horse. It’s a moral failing.

  2. Wonderful post. It (and Harrison’s comment) hooks right into Michael Bycroft’s series on the Symmetry Principle, recently aroused from hibernation.

    Two feetnote:

    (1) As you say, Kepler proposed the rotation of the sun a few years before Galileo showed this. A perfect example of an experimental confirmation of a theory, right? No, rather a perfect confirmation of your drunken walk theory of history. Kepler’s prediction arose from his notion of an immaterial “species”, emanating from the sun, swept the planets along in their orbits. (Aiton considers Kepler’s idea to be a precursor to Descartes’ vortex theory.) Scheiner’s demonstration that the sun’s axis was tilted with respect to the ecliptic threw a monkey wrench into this neat concord between theory and observation.

    (2) Schrödinger was on the same side as Einstein in the QM debates. His original interpretion of his equation was fully deterministic, and he strongly disliked the way Bohr, Born, and Heisenberg refashioned the theory. (Famous quote: “If all this damned quantum jumping were really to stay, I should be sorry I ever got involved with quantum theory.” His even more famous cat thought-experiment was intended to show the absurdity of the Copenhagen interpretation.)

    Even today, the Copenhagen interpretation falls a good deal short of commanding a physicists’ consensus.

    • laura

      iirc, Kepler always assumed the sun rotated with the same inclination to the ecliptic as the earth.

      • Not according to the Astronomia Nova:

        It therefore remains that the body of the sun itself rotates in the manner described above, indicating the poles of the zodiac by the poles of its rotation (by extension to the fixed stars of the line from the center of the body through the poles), and indicating the ecliptic by the greatest circle of its body; thus furnishing a natural cause for these astronomical entities (Ch.34, Donahue’s translation)

        Perhaps you are thinking of the circulus regius, Kepler’s notion of a “mean ecliptic”? Stephenson discusses this in Kepler’s Physical Astronomy, p.133-137. The problem is the data didn’t work out — the nodal lines are not coplanar.

        I’d be interested in anything else you remember about this — maybe he said something in the Harmonies? That was published in 1619. When did Scheiner publish his results on the solar axis?

        Incidentally, Stephenson, in a footnote, gives a lukewarm defense of Kepler’s prediction: “I suppose that, in a very general sense, his reasoning was sound: the entire solar system rotated in the same direction, so it was physically likely that the sun did likewise, whatever the forces connecting the sun and the planets.”

        Of course, the real reason for the common direction is the angular momentum of the protoplanetary disk. Whether this justifies Kepler’s inference, I leave for you to judge.

      • Arggh! The nodal lines are coplanar by definition. I meant the apsidal lines.

      • laura

        I read it in Koyre which I left at a friend’s place a couple of months ago and still haven’t retrieved — when I do I’ll check. Off the top of my head I think Koyre was referring to the analysis in Epitome (and of course his analysis might have been wrong or I might have misinterpreted it. Everyone seems to have a different take on Kepler’s physics!)

      • Even Kepler is not consistent on Kepler’s physics

      • Do you mean Koyré’s The Astronomical Revolution? I’ll have to get ahold of a copy and take a look. I see from Stephenson that the Epitome appeared after the discovery of sunspots, but it doesn’t say if the solar tilt had been discovered.

        The earth’s axial tilt is of course 23°, the sun’s only 7.5°. So Kepler might have argued that the discrepancy between the sun’s equatorial plane and the ecliptic was small enough to be explained somehow (especially since the orbital tilt for the planets was mostly around 2°-3°, rising to 7° for Mercury). I’m using current data values; I’m assuming Kepler’s values were in the same ballpark.

      • laura

        @ Michael: Yes, The Astronomical Revolution.

      • @laura: thank you for the pointer to Koyré’s Astronomical Revolution. Chockful of good stuff, including a substantial excerpt from Boulliau (Bullialdi), which I’d been looking for.

        I couldn’t find any reference to Kepler tilting the solar axis (wrt the ecliptic); perhaps you were thinking of this quote from Borelli (p.477): “Seeing that the plane of the solar whirlpool is definitely inclined to the plane of the ecliptic…” The context is Boulliau’s curious conical hypothesis; Borelli is trying to unify Kepler’s physics with Boulliau’s geometry. But he ends up abandoning the idea (p.478).

        Scheiner’s observations proved bad news for Kepler’s hypothesis in another way. Kepler had predicted a solar rotation period of three days (p.206). But as Koyré notes (fn.34, p.412), “Kepler was disagreeably surprised when Scheiner fixed the period of the rotation at 25 days as a result of his observations of sunspots. However, he accepted the fact without protest.”

        Sidenote: Koyré says a couple of times that Ptolemy’s equant is strictly equivalent to Kepler’s area law for an eccentric circular orbit. I haven’t yet verified this. Have you ever run across that claim elsewhere?

  3. Baerista

    Wonderful post, Thony, Way up there with your best.

  4. guthrie

    I agree, great post. Now can we get you to write some history of science programs for TV?

  5. Ian H Spedding

    … I don’t like my science or history of science served up by a star presenter who is the centre of the action rather than the science itself, a common situation with the documentaries of ‘he who shall not be named’-TPBoPS, and NdGT. It seems that we are supposed to learn whatever it is that the documentary nominally offers by zooming in on the thoughtful features of the presenter, viewing his skilfully lit profile or following him as he walks purposefully, thoughtfully, meaningfully or pensively through the landscape. What comes out is “The Brian/Neil/Jim Show” with added science on the side, which doesn’t really convince me, but maybe I’m just getting old.

    While I agree with much of this – I am put off by any science shows in which the personality quirks and gimmicks of the presenter intrude themselves between me and the science – would it not also apply to Bronowski’s The Ascent Of Man whose praises were recently and justly being sung over on The Skeptical Zone?

  6. Pingback: Astronomy Documentaries | Astronomy News

  7. “Even today, the Copenhagen interpretation falls a good deal short of commanding a physicists’ consensus. “

    I think that it would be fair to say that this interpretation commands a diminishing degree of support. It is fine if you follow the “shut up and calculate” philosophy, but the lack of any ontological basis for the collapse of the wave function arising from a measurement is its weakness. Roger Penrose puts the problem well in Chapter 29 of “The Road to Reality” where he also says “My own position … is that the issue of ontology is crucial to quantum mechanics, though it raises some matters that are far from being resolved at the present time.”

    If there is anything that really annoys me about popular presentations of quantum mechanics, it is the way in which the Copenhagen and Many-Worlds interpretations are treated as the only options, just because they are the easiest to explain.

    • True enough. David Mermin, who coined the phrase ”Shut up and calculate”, self-ironically titled his own thoughts on the matter the Ithaca interpretation. (Mermin is at Cornell, in Ithaca, NY). Mermin wondered how much QM mystery would remain if you could somehow disentangle the matter from those already hoary philosophical brambles, the meaning of probability and the nature of consciousness. Probably not that much.

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