Thursday, August 5, 2010

Writing for the blog Periodic Tabloid: gravity and Pseudoscience

Recently the lead article in the Science Times profiled a string theorist who claims gravity does not exist.  
Instead, physicist Erik Verlinde says “gravity is a consequence of the venerable laws of thermodynamics, which describe the behavior of heat and gases.” Verlinde is not denying the phenomenon nor expecting pigs to fly, he just wants to describe why gravity keeps us firmly on Earth.

Theories do have a history of falling out of favor. In the late 1600s, both Christiaan Huygens and Isaac Newton developed useful and mutually exclusive theories of how light travels. For Huygens, light was waves. For Newton, particles. Huygens got a big boost from Augustin-Jean Fresnel in the early 1800s when the French scientist described light as waves in the omnipresent ether.

Almost a century later, the ether theory was found to be false. And in the 20th century both the wave and particle theories of light turned out to be true at the same time.

As a history of science organization, CHF follows the fortunes of theories from their inception through their ascendance and acceptance, and on to their demise. We may one day see the demise of the theory of universal gravitation. Theories, as a rule, rise slowly and fitfully and fall like a rock tossed off a building—gravity accepted as true for now. In all science, minority positions like Verlinde’s are part of every discipline. But sometimes these minority positions leave science and go another way.

As such CHF also tracks the history of pseudoscience. For us, the rise of a theory that never gains scientific acceptance is as interesting as one that wins acceptance as a way of understanding material reality. For example, why did creation science evolve and thrive in the United States, just as this country became the world leader in science? In the middle of a country that boasts Caltech, MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Apple, Intel, and Genentech sits the Creation Museum near Louisville, Kentucky. Inside Cain and Abel play with pet dinosaurs and the speed of light is considered variable.

Scientific theories are some of the most ingenious products of the human mind when based in fact. But even when they are not, the history of science in all of its forms is fascinating.
Published here.