Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Dan Duda
from the August, 2017 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission
Most of the great breakthrough discoveries in science are made by outsiders to the fields in which they occur. The theory of heliocentrism, for example, wasn’t published until after Copernicus’ death. He knew that the existing scientific/religious establishment would have ended him much earlier if he openly claimed that the Earth revolved around the Sun instead of the other way around. Nikola Tesla was a misanthrope whose ideas challenged even the orthodoxy of his boss (Thomas Edison) and the then prevailing views of the emerging technology of electricity. He went his own way and established AC (alternating current) which is the standard even today.
But, perhaps the most compelling proof of the value of being an outsider is the story of our favorite thinker- Albert Einstein. Early in life he was considered a “slow learner”. Later, he hardly made it through his courses at university, in part, because he mercilessly challenged his professors, and in part because he focused more on his own ideas rather than the curriculum of his classes.
Being ostracized by the scientific community, he was unable to get a job, or a teaching position in his field. So, as we all know, he spent the first years of his career as a lowly patent office clerk. Even when he began to be recognized as an extraordinary thinker, his outsider status was so ingrained that he was snubbed by the Nobel committee. Although his Theory of Relativity is perhaps the greatest scientific breakthrough in history, that group wouldn’t honor the “outsider.”
However, Einstein’s achievements were so powerful that the “in-crowd” finally had to accept him. Somewhat reluctantly the committee later (1921) relented and awarded him the prize in Physics for his paper on the Photoelectric effect, which helped form the foundation of Quantum Mechanics.
Finally, Einstein became well established as a leading member of the scientific “in-crowd.” And with that his incredible momentum in science slowed to a crawl. Ironically, although he was a key founder of Quantum Mechanics, he resisted the new findings that were emerging from that field. Instead he fought for the orthodoxy of the establishment of which he was now a member.
I believe the greatest clashes in scientific history are the Einstein-Bohr debates about the nature of reality. It led to many famous Einstein quotes: “God does not play dice with the universe;” and “I like to believe the Moon is there even if I’m not looking.” Niels Bohr and a group of pioneering physicists were uncovering incredible results from their studies. Results that made no sense to the established, in-crowd mind, much like the relativity theories earlier in Einstein’s career. But science has since proved that Bohr was right and the insider Einstein was wrong.
As an insider, Einstein even amended his Theory of Relativity to fit the more established, in-crowd view. In its pure form the mathematics suggested that the universe is expanding. However, the established view at the time was “steady state,” or a static universe. So, Einstein invented a “fix” to make his math consistent with a static universe. He later admitted that his “Lambda,” or Cosmological Constant was his biggest blunder. In fact, if he had accepted his own math he would have been credited with another major discovery in astrophysics—the expanding universe.
Late in life Einstein teamed up with two colleagues: Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen to mount another challenge against quantum mechanics. To prove the theory could not possibly be true they developed another thought experiment. The essence of their idea is that, if quantum concepts were true, entangled particles could communicate with each other instantly no matter how great the separation. Since the logic was solid and the technology for testing the idea didn’t exist at the time, this threw quantum science a curve that lasted for decades. However, technology finally caught up and, in the 70s “spooky action at a distance” was proven to be reality.
It is a testament to Einstein’s incredible genius that even in his attempt to discredit a theory he unintentionally created a breakthrough concept—particle entanglement. In the words of Soren Kierkegaard, “The paradox is really the pathos of intellectual life, and just as only great souls are exposed to passions, it is only the great thinker who is exposed to what I call paradoxes, which are nothing else than grandiose thoughts in embryo.”
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.
Editor's Note: This editorial is dedicated to the memory of our friend and colleague Vera Cooper Rubin (23 July 1928 - 25 December 2016). Dr. Rubin's academic advisors were a who's who of modern astrophysics: George Gamow, Richard Feynman, Hanse Bethe, and Philip Morrison. Many (including this editor) believe that Rubin's research and discoveries were worthy of a Nobel Prize, one of the few honors she was denied.
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this page last updated 7 October 2017
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