Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

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Archive for January, 2019
A long time ago, when computers were memory challenged, I got my son a computer game in which the characters aged, and according to the instructions after so much playing they were useless for anything except sitting around the campfire telling stories. I sometimes wonder if I have reached this stage. Whatever, for some reason I seem to be fixated on recalling what happened fifty years ago, so in January, 1969 I finished a post doc at The University, Southampton. Just before leaving I was approached to write an article for the local journal. All post docs had to do it, so I was told. I suspected this was not exactly true, nevertheless with nothing much to do over Christmas/New Year, and after a frustrating year at the bench, I was fixated on the letter "f", so I wrote "Famous Fatuous Failures" and left it in hand-written form. This in turn could be regarded as a fatuous failure, although hardly famous. 

One of the historical items I focused on was the development of the law of mass action, with the two contenders Berthelot and Berthollet. Whoever edited the script decided that I had persistently misspelled this part, and the article ended up with one person arguing with himself! Berthollet himself was something of a failure. He had made the critical observation that the sodium carbonate/calcium chloride reaction could be made to go the "wrong" way, so he was well on the way to the law of mass action. What stopped him was he did not believe in molecules. Not helpful. Worse, if there are no such things as molecules, and the amount of material influenced the composition, it follows that gravimetric analyses are useless. Not a high point. 

On the other hand, sometimes it is right not to believe in what everyone else believes. One example was phlogiston. Part of the problem with phlogiston was there several versions of it. When Stahl found that burning metals leads to increased mass, the answer was obvious: phlogiston had negative mass! Another example (not due to Stahl) was transmutation. A small willow tree weighing a little over 5 lb was put into 200 lb of earth and watered with distilled water until it weighed 169 lb. At this point, the recovered earth weighed 2 oz less than when the experiment started. The wood, therefore was obtained solely from water, as was the resultant charcoal. Before we laugh, it is very easy to work out what happened when we know, but it is a lot harder to develop theory when you do not know what the answer will be.

And, of course, there are always fraudsters to make it easy to become sceptical of unexpected claims. For the gullible, there was the philosopher's stone. In the 13th century Lulles apparently claimed to have transmuted twenty-two tonne of metal into gold. The question then is, why was he not immensely rich? And why did kings not force him to divulge his secret? If success was measured in getting rich from transmuting a metal into a more valuable one, there were some real ancient "successes" at transmutation. Thus a number of Roman emperors made copper coins and coated them with silver, thus handing them off as true silver. Defacing such coins or announcing or uncovering this secret led to dire consequences, and dire consequences then were somewhat worse than modern justice.
Forty years before Lavoisier disposed of phlogiston (do you see why doing that was a failure?) Lomonosov had stated that atoms are fundamental particles that are in kinetic motion, and that this motion causes heat.  Boyle’s “fire particle” idea is incorrect, phlogiston does not exist and matter is conserved. This is a fair recycling of Democritus. However Lomonosov failed to make an impact, partly because he failed to go on the lecture/conference circuit of Europe – at that early date! A similar failure is illustrated by the case of J. J. Waterston, who submitted a paper to the Royal Society in 1845.  It was turned down, without reason, as “unsuitable for publication”, and was finally published in 1892, which may be a record for the longest editorial delay. The subject was the kinetic theory of gases. In these two cases, I found myself feeling rather smug at the time of writing. What I did not know was one way or another I was illustrating how I was later to fail. The first example was in early 1969, so that can be a subject of a post later this year.

In the meantime, I wish readers all the best for a successful 2019 and for success with your science in the future.
Posted by Ian Miller on Jan 5, 2019 10:41 PM GMT