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On Fact and Fraud

Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science

A review of On Fact and Fraud: Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science by David Goodstein. This review appeared in the American Journal of Physics on July 14, 2010.

In 1609 Galileo turned toward the heavens a modified version of the telescope first invented by the Dutch spectaclemaker Hans Lippershey, and there he observed that satellites were orbiting Jupiter, that Venus had phases, and that there were mountains on the moon and spots on the sun. His claims challenged Aristotelian cosmology, which held that all objects in space must be perfectly round and perfectly smooth. After observing Saturn, however, Galileo wrote to Johannes Kepler, “Altissimum planetam tergeminum observavi” (“I have observed that the farthest planet is threefold”). He continued: “This is to say that to my very great amazement Saturn was seen to me to be not a single star, but three together, which almost touch each other.” Galileo saw Saturn not as a planet with rings as we see it today in even the tiniest of home telescopes, but as one large sphere surrounded by two smaller spheres.

Why did Galileo make this mistake? Two reasons: (1) Data—Saturn is twice as far away as Jupiter; thus what few photons of light there were streaming through the cloudy glass in his little tube made resolution of the rings problematic at best; and (2) theory—there was no theory of planetary rings. It is at this intersection of nonexistent theory and nebulous data that the power of belief is at its zenith and the mind fills in the blanks. (continue reading…)

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An Unauthorized Autobiography of Science

Journal article explanations of how science
works often differ from the actual process
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According to 55 percent of 350,000 people from 70 countries who participated online in Richard Wiseman’s Laugh Lab experiment (discussed in last month’s column), this is the world’s funniest joke:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says, “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says, “Okay, now what?”

(continue reading…)

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The Physicist and the Abalone Diver

The difference between the creators of two new theories of science reveals the social nature of the scientific process
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Consider the following quotes, written by authors of recently self-published books purporting to revolutionize science:

“This book is the culmination of nearly twenty years of work that I have done to develop that new kind of science. I had never expected it would take anything like as long, but I have discovered vastly more than I ever thought possible, and in fact what I have done now touches almost every existing area of science, and quite a bit besides … I have come to view [my discovery] as one of the more important single discoveries in the whole history of theoretical science.”

“The development of this work has been a completely solitary effort during the past thirty years. As you will realize as you read through this book, these ideas had to be developed by an outsider. They are such a complete reversal of contemporary thinking that it would have been very difficult for any one part of this integrated theoretical system to be developed within the rigid structure of institutional science.” (continue reading…)

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