Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Relative Fame

John Rennie, former Editor in Chief of Scientific American and author of "15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense," has a nice article on why the controversy over superluminal neutrinos threatens to become another instance of, in the felicitous phrase of the Sensuous Curmudgeon, the Vindication of All Kooks Doctrine.

So why aren't scientists accepting the verification of these seemingly impossible faster-than-light particles? Are they just refusing to acknowledge that the concepts on which they built their careers are wrong? Are they rebelling against a "paradigm shift" in their field, as the historian Thomas Kuhn put it in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions? And does their behavior lend credence to the idea often spread by cold fusion enthusiasts, climate change deniers, intelligent design theorists, UFO believers and others that researchers are more interested in protecting mainstream scientific orthodoxy than in finding the truth?
After discussing why physicists are being cautious, Rennie goes on to puncture the VoAKD:

What's almost absurd, however, is to think that scientists would steer away from iconoclastic discoveries to protect their professional standing. But the career of any scientist who has the evidence to knock down pillars of his or her field isn't ruined — it's made.

The physicists who first prove the existence of faster-than-light particles are instantly in the history books. That credential looks pretty good to tenure committees and granting agencies. The same would be true for any climate scientist who could truly, conclusively prove that worries about climate change from industrial greenhouse gases were groundless, or for any biologist who could knock off evolution as the best explanation for living things' traits. They wouldn't be blackballed by their professions: they would be among the most famous scientists alive and able to name their own appointments. ...

Einstein's theory of special relativity sits on a pedestal of honor, not on an altar. Plenty of physicists would be glad to knock it off and put something else in its place.
Rennie does miss the chance to point out that Einstein himself earned that pedestal and became the most famous and most honored scientist of his age by knocking his most famous and honored predecessor, Isaac Newton, down a notch.

I think most scientists would like to have their names forever associated with Einstein's.

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