Earlier in the yeary, University of Edinburgh historian of mathematics, Michael Barany, used the expression “the wrong side of history” whilst live tweeting the university’s conference on Charles Piazzi Smyth the nineteenth century English astronomer and pyramidologist. This oft repeated cliché somehow struck a chord and I asked on Twitter what people actually thought it meant. I received quite a lot of answers spread over a fairly wide spectrum. Some though of it as a moral judgement, others on a similar wavelength viewed it as purely political, listing the well-known villain of history, Hitler, Stalin et al. But the view that really interested me, and the reason Michael Barany had used it, was its use in the history of science to designate people, who had strongly defended a theory or hypothesis that was later proved to be false. I think its use in this way is largely inappropriate, as it paints a much too black and white picture, whereas the history of science is, in my opinion, mostly various shades of grey. I would like to illustrate what I mean with some historical examples; this is not a systematic study but some musings provoked by my initial reaction to the phrase.
Copernicus is something of an icon in the history of astronomy, as the first Early Modern European astronomer to suggest that the cosmos was heliocentric and not, as had generally been believed, geocentric, so that puts him very much on the right side of history. However, although we actually know very little about his motivation, we do know that his main concern was to remove Ptolemeaus’ equant point in order to make astronomy conform with the so-called Platonic axioms i.e. all celestial motion takes place in uniform circular motion around a common centre. This desire of his to maintain the Platonic axioms places him firmly on the wrong side of history.
Tycho Brahe rejected heliocentricity both on astronomical and on religious grounds landing him on the wrong side of history but revolutionised observational astronomy delivering vast quantities of new astronomical data of an unheard of accuracy; you guessed it, right side of history.
Johannes Kepler, however, not only strongly propagated heliocentricity but using Tycho’s new data abandoned the Platonic axioms completely, replacing them with his three laws of planetary motion, still valid today, right side of history with a vengeance. Unfortunately the extremely devote Christian believed in a closed, finite cosmos with God as the sun, Jesus as the fixed stars and the Holy Ghost as the space in between; you can’t really get further on the wrong side of history than that.
In the popular imagination Galileo Galilei is considered to be one-hundred pre cent on the right side of history but was he really? The book, that most people know is his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which is a polemic for heliocentricity and because we actually live in a heliocentric system it is assumed that what Galileo has to say is correct; unfortunately this assumption is far from the truth. Firstly the two systems he discusses Copernican heliocentricity and Ptolemaic geocentricity were both out dated when he wrote the book, Copernicus displaced by Kepler’s elliptical system and Ptolemy refuted by the discovery of the phases of Venus. Galileo simply ignores the true contemporary contenders, Kepler and some form of geo-heliocentric system. So he is very much on the wrong side of history. Even worse his supposedly crowning argument, his theory of the tides, presented on the fourth and final day of his dialogue, was already contradicted by the available empirical evidence. He even goes so far as to rubbish Kepler’s correct assumption that tides are somehow caused by the moon. Galileo did many things that were in fact on the right side of history but his sally into the astronomical/cosmological debate of the period was anything but.
For modern scientists astronomy is an honourable and ancient science, whereas astrology is merely occult mumbo jumbo. However, all three of our early modern astronomers, Tycho, Kepler and Galileo, were practicing astrologers, who genuinely believed in it. Distinctly wrong side of history there.
Moving to the other end of the seventeenth century we meet Isaac Newton. Like Galileo, Newton is venerated as a scholar firmly on the right side of history. However, beyond his achievements in mathematics, astronomy and physics, as every Newton aficionado well knows, he held views on religion and alchemy that make life very difficult for his rational fans. They like to argue that his science has nothing to do with his non-scientific activities but any analysis of his work shows that the various fields of his thought scientific and non-scientific were thoroughly integrated with one another. So which side of history do we place him on?
I briefly mentioned astrology above, which today is without doubt regarded, as being on the wrong side of history but astrology was one of the major driving forces behind the evolution of European astronomy from its beginnings in the Fertile Crescent sometime in the third millennium BCE all the way down to the end of the seventeenth century. Although, he was not a believer even Newton learnt his astronomy from books written by astrologers.
An eighteenth century theory that gets mocked by believers in right and wrong sides of history, as truly beyond the pale is the phlogiston theory in chemistry. It is of course viewed with hindsight stupendously and wonderfully wrong. However, what those, who mock it ignore is that scholars such as Joseph Black, Daniel Rutherford, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, Joseph Priestley and Henry Cavendish working within the framework of the phlogiston theory discovered, isolated and identified the properties of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen and the structure of water amongst other things; these researchers laid the foundations of modern chemistry. All on the wrong side of history, really? Some go so far as to attribute the discovery of oxygen to Lavoisier and not to Scheele and Priestley because unlike Priestley he didn’t believe it to be dephlogisticated air and was thus on the right side of history. But was he? Lavoisier named the gas oxygen from the Greek for sharp or acid believing it to be the element that makes all acids acidic, a belief that was just as false as Priestley’s dephlogisticated air.
Like Galileo and Newton in the seventeenth century, Albert Einstein is an icon of twentieth century science. Einstein is criticised and said to be on the wrong side of history because although he, together with Max Planck, founded the quantum theory, for which they both won Nobel Prizes, he refused to accept the indeterminate model of quantum mechanics created by Niels Bohr, based on the theories of Schrödinger, Heisenberg et al. Einstein was a determinist and was in this case shown to be wrong in the long run but Bohr himself said that Einstein contribute as much as anybody else to the development of quantum mechanics through his astute criticism.
I hope I have brought enough clear examples to show that categorising scientist or developments in science, as either on the right or wrong side of history is actually complete rubbish. Every scientific scholar, who has ever lived, has got some things right, some wrong and quite a lot, sort of half right. Science advances by others correcting the wrong and the half right bits. Also theories that in the end proved to be totally wrong, such as astrology, the phlogiston theory or alchemy, can, and in fact did, generate important results that furthered the evolution of science. The evolution of science is not categorised by clear black and white situations but as I said above consists of multifarious shades of grey. The right/wrong side of history concept is actually nothing more than a veiled version of presentism i.e. only acknowledging those aspects of the history of science that we consider to be right from our current standpoint.
I firmly believe that the concept of right or wrong side of history together with presentism and the expressions ‘father of’, ‘greatest’, and ‘first’ belongs in the rubbish bin and should never ever be applied in anything that purports to be serious history of science.