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.