Tuesday, April 19, 2005

In the spirit of science and crankery.

Since Jonathan over at Roam no More wrote such an appealing essay on the wonders of science and was nice enough to link to me, I will, in the typically incestuous fashion of like-minded bloggers, link back to him and add something to that. It's an abridged version of one of my favourite essays by Jeremy Bernstein. I really don't even need to introduce it -- you'll figure out what it's all about.

[For many] years I went about my business in physics without encountering much more than a tiny trickle of cranks; that is, until I began to write about science for the general public and, above all, after I had written a popular article about Einstein and the theory of relativity for the New Yorker. [...]

One evening, about a year ago, the phone rang in my apartment. It was a long distance call from somewhere in the Southwest, and it was from a gentleman whom I will refer to as A. [...]

A began the conversation after verifying that I was the author of a certain book about the theory of elementary particles. He proclaimed that, in his opinion, this book was one of the greatest contributions to modern thought since Newton's Principia. *My* thought was, "What does this one want?"

It soon became clear what he wanted. He had written, he informed me, a massive, as yet unpublished treatise in which was solved each and every problem that remained unsolved by my book (a hallmark of crank manuscripts is that they solve *everything*), and that, furthermore and for good measure, it contained a theory of the origin of the moon. (I though of saying "Your beloved homeland?" but a second hallmark of cranks is that they are humorless.) Needless to say, he wanted me to read this document and to send him a commentary. [...]

In the first place, no crank wants, or will accept, an honest criticism of anything. He has solved the "problem," whatever it is, and is looking for an endorsement. Even agreeing to accept, let alone comment on, such a manuscript opens open up to endless trouble. [...] (A third hallmark of the crank is that he is sure that everyone is out to steal his ideas.)

[Bernstein politely refuses to read the manuscript. Six months later, A's friend B calls.]

[B ] informed me that his friend A had read my book and regarded it as the greatest contribution to human thought since...et cetera. He also told me that A's theory of the formation of the moon would soon hit the press, where it would make front-page news. (A fourth hallmark of the crank is that he is determined to bring the newspapers in somehow.) [...]

Again, I said to B that under no circumstances would I read A's book, and goodbye. But that did not end the matter. Only a few weeks ago I received a letter from A informing me that reading his book should be comparatively simple for me, since it "includes about 25% drawings and plates." [...]

I sometimes have the following fantasy. It is the year 1905 and I am professor of physics at the University of Bern. The phone rings, and a person I have never heard of identifies himself as a patent examiner in the Swiss National Patent Office. [...]

Suppose I had had the good sense to ask the fellow for a reprint of his recently published paper "Zur Elektrodunamik bewegter Korper" (The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies"). How could I have told that this was not a crank paper with a crank theory? There are, I think, at least two clues.

In the first place, the theory -- the special theory of relativity in this instance -- satisfies what Niels Bohr later called, in a more general context, the correspondence principle. The relativity theory generalizes Newtonian mechanics, but, after all, Newton's mechanics works marvelously well for a vast domain of phenomena. Hence there must be some limit in which the two theories merge -- or "correspond." [...]

Crank theories, when they are theories at all -- an important point to which I will return -- usually start and end in midair. They do not connect in any way with things that are known. [...]

The second clue I have alluded to above: It is that, in the phrase of [Wolfgang] Pauli, crank theories "aren't even wrong." I have never yet seen a crank physics theory that offered a novel quantitative prediction that could be either verified or falsified. It is usually awash in a garble of verbiage with terms like "energy," "field," "particle," "mass," and God knows what, all festooned like Christmas decorations. [...]

Einstein's 1905 paper may at first sight appear to be bizarre, but it is full of predictions. The whole thing is crying out to be tested in laboratories. [...]


Scientific Cranks: How To Recognize One and What to Do Until the Doctor Arrives" by Jeremy Bernstein in American Scholar, Winter 1977-78, Volume 47, No. 1.

No comments: