Friday, 26 August 2016

The benefit of hindsight: the truth behind several infamous science quotes

With utmost apologies to Jane Austen fans, it is a truth universally acknowledged that most people misinterpret science as an ever-expanding corpus of knowledge rather than as a collection of methods for investigating natural phenomena. A simplistic view for those who adhere to the former misapprehension might include questioning science as a whole when high-profile practitioners make an authoritative statement that is proven - in a scientific sense - to be incorrect.

Amongst the more obvious examples of this are the numerous citations from prominent STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) professionals that are inaccurate to such an extreme as to appear farcical in light of later evidence. I have already discussed the rather vague of art of scientific prognostication in several connected posts but now want to directly examine several quotations concerning applied science. Whereas many quotes are probably as deserving of contempt as the popular opinion of them, I believe the following require careful reading and knowledge of their context in which to attempt any meaningful judgement.

Unlike Hollywood, STEM subjects are frequently too complex for simple black versus white analysis. Of course there have been rather derisible opinions espoused by senior scientists, many of which - luckily - remain largely unknown to the wider public. The British cosmologist and astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle has a large number of these just to himself, from continued support for the Steady State theory long after the detection of cosmic microwave background radiation, to the even less defensible claims that the Natural History Museum's archaeopteryx fossil is a fake and that flu germs are really alien microbes!

Anyhow, here's the first quote:

1) Something is seriously wrong with space travel.

Richard van der Riet Woolley was the British Astronomer Royal at the dawn of the Space Age. His most infamous quote is the archetypal instance of Arthur C. Clarke's First Law:  "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

Although a prominent astronomer, van der Riet Woolley had little knowledge of the practical mechanics that would be required for spaceflight. By the mid-1930s the British Interplanetary Society had developed detailed (although largely paper-only) studies into a crewed lunar landing mission. In 1936 Van der Riet Woolley publically criticised such work, stating that the development of even an unmanned rocket would present fundamental technical difficulties. Bear in mind that this was only six years before the first V2 rocket, which was capable of reaching an altitude of just over 200km!

In 1956, only one year before Sputnik 1 - and thirteen years prior to Apollo 11 - the astronomer went on to claim that near-future space travel was unlikely and a manned lunar landing "utter bilge, really". Of course this has been used as ammunition against him ever since, but the quote deserves some investigation. Van der Riet Woolley goes on to reveal that his primary objection appears to have changed (presumably post-V2 and its successors) from an engineering problem to an economic one, stating that it would cost as much as a "major war" to land on the moon.

This substantially changes the flavour of his quote, since it is after all reasonably accurate. In 2010 dollars, Project Apollo has an estimated budget of about US$109 billion - incidentally about 11% of the cost of the contemporary Vietnam War. In addition, we should bear in mind that a significant amount of the contractors' work on the project is said to have consisted of unpaid overtime. Is it perhaps time to reappraise the stargazer from a reactionary curmudgeon to an economic realist?

Indeed, had Apollo been initiated in a subsequent decade, there is reasonable evidence to suggest it would have failed to leave the ground, so to speak. The uncertainty of the post-Vietnam and Watergate period, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, suggest America's loss of faith in technocracy would have effectively cut Apollo off in its prime. After all, another colossal American science and engineering project, the $12 billion particle accelerator the Superconducting Super Collider, was cancelled in 1993 after being deemed unaffordable. Yet up to that point only about one-sixth of its estimated budget had been spent.

In addition, van der Riet Woolley was not alone among STEM professionals: for three decades from the mid-1920s the inventor of the vacuum tube Lee De Forest is said to have claimed that space travel was impractical. Clearly, the Astronomer Royal was not an isolated voice in the wilderness but part of a large consensus opposed to the dreamers in the British Interplanetary Society and their ilk. Perhaps we should allow him his pragmatism, even if it appears a polar opposite to one of Einstein's great aphorisms: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. .."

Talking of whom…

2) Letting the genie out of the bottle.

In late 1934 an American newspaper carried this quotation from Albert Einstein: "There is not the slightest indication that (nuclear energy) will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will." This seems to be rather amusing, considering the development of the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction only eight years later. But Einstein was first and foremost a theorist, a master of the thought experiment, his father's work in electrical engineering not being noticeably sustained in his son. There is obviously a vast world of difference between imagining riding a beam of light to the practical difficulties in assembling brand new technologies with little in the way of precedent. So why did Einstein make such a definitive prediction?

I think it is possible that it may also have been wishful thinking on Einstein's part; as a pacifist he would have dreaded the development of a new super weapon. As the formulator of the equivalence between mass and energy, he could have felt in some way responsible for initiating the avalanche that eventually led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet there is no clear path between E=mc2 and a man-made chain reaction; it took a team of brilliant experimental physicists and engineers in addition to theorists to achieve a practical solution, via the immense budget of $26 billion (in 2016 dollars).

It is hardly as if the good professor was alone in his views either, as senior officials also doubted the ability to harness atomic fission for power or weaponry. In 1945 when the Manhattan Project was nearing culmination, the highest-ranking member of the American military, Fleet Admiral William Leahy, apparently informed President Truman that the atomic bomb wouldn't work. Perhaps this isn't as obtuse as it sounds, since due to the level of security only a very small percentage of the personnel working on the project knew any of the details.

Leahy clearly knew exactly what the intended outcome was, but even as "an expert in explosives" had no understanding of the complexity of engineering involved. An interesting associated fact is that despite being a military man, the Admiral considered the atomic bomb unethical for its obvious potential as an indiscriminate killer of civilians. Weapons of mass destruction lack any of the valour or bravado of traditional 'heroic' warfare.  Is it possible that this martial leader wanted the bomb to fail for moral reasons, a case of heart over mind? In which case, is this a rare example in which the pacifism of the most well-known scientist was in total agreement with a military figurehead?

Another potential cause is the paradigm shift that harnessing the power of the atom required. In the decade prior to the Manhattan Project, New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford had referred to the possibility of man-made atomic energy as "moonshine" whilst another Nobel laureate, American physicist Robert Millikan, had made similar sentiments in the 1920s. And this from men who were pioneers in understanding the structure of the atom!

As science communicator James Burke vividly described in his 1985 television series The Day the Universe Changed, major scientific developments often require substantial reappraisals in outlook, seeing beyond what is taken for granted. The cutting edge of physics is often described as being ruled by theorists in their twenties; eager young turks who are more prepared to ignore precedents. When he became a pillar of the establishment, Einstein ruefully commented: "To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself."

Perhaps then, such fundamental shifts in technology as the development of space travel and nuclear fission require equally revolutionary changes in mind set and we shouldn't judge the authors of our example quotes too harshly. Then again, if you are an optimist, Clarke's First Law might seem applicable in this situation, in which case quotes from authority figures with some knowledge of the subject in hand should take note of the ingenuity of our species. If there is a moral to this to story, it is other than the speed of light in a vacuum and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, never say never...