Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nonsense people once believed in

I have a list with notes for blogposts, and one topic that's been on it for a while is believes people once firmly held that during the history of science turned out to be utterly wrong.

Some examples that came to my mind were the "élan vital" (the belief that life is some sort of substance), the theory of the four humors (one consequence of which was the wide spread use of bloodletting as medical treatment for all sorts of purposes), the static universe, and the non-acceptance of continental drift. On the more absurd side of things is the belief that semen is produced in the brain (because the brain was considered the seat of the soul), and that women who are nursing turn menstruation blood into breast milk. From my recent read of Annie Paul's book "Origins" I further learned that until only some decades ago it was widely believed that pretty much any sort of toxins are blocked by the placenta and do not reach the unborn child. It was indeed recommended that pregnant women drink alcohol, and smoking was not of concern. This dramatically wrong belief was also the reason why thalidomide was handed out without much concerns to pregnant women, with the know well-known disastrous consequences, and why the fetal alcohol syndrome is a fairly recent diagnosis.

I was collecting more examples, not very actively I have to admit, but I found yesterday that somebody saved me the work! Richard Thaler, director of the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, is working on a book about the topic, and he's asked the Edge-club for input:

"The flat earth and geocentric world are examples of wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods. Can you name your favorite example and for extra credit why it was believed to be true?"

You find the replies on this website, which include most of my examples and a few more. One reply that I found very interesting is that by Frank Tipler:
"The false belief that stomach ulcers were caused by stress rather than bacteria. I have some information on this subject that has never been published anywhere. There is a modern Galileo in this story, a scientist convicted of a felony in criminal court in the 1960's because he thought that bacteria caused ulcers."

I hadn't known about the "modern Galileo," is anybody aware of the details? Eric Weinstein adds the tau-theta puzzle, and Rupert Sheldrake suggests "With the advent of quantum theory, indeterminacy rendered the belief in determinism untenable," though I would argue that this issue isn't settled, and maybe never will be settled.

Do you know more examples?

59 comments:

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Not exactly a widely held belief, but a Nobel prize winning molecular biologist once argued that since we would never be able to manipulate genes, there was no point in speculating about the prospect.

philipgibbs said...

There is a long list of obsolete theories on wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Obsolete_scientific_theories . Not all of these were accepted for a long time before being refuted, but many were.

Arun said...

I'm not sure nonacceptance of continental drift should count as nonsense people once believed in. To quote a web page:
http://www.bbm.me.uk/portsdown/PH_061_History_b.htm


"The biggest problem Wegener had, however, was not this error, but that of being unable to describe the process of movement, or why the continents would move in the first place. Although he made some suggestions, he was aware that they were weak (and were in fact wrong.)

This inability to explain the "why" and the "how" of continental movement was a primary reason that his theory was rejected. The weaknesses of his suggested processes were torn apart, and their failure to hold up to simple maths, was used to discredit the whole theory in the international forum."

-----

Of course, the episode should teach us some humility.

Peter said...

I'm tempted to give "morphic resonance" as an example of nonsense that (some) people belive(d?) in... ;)

Robert L. Oldershaw said...

You probably already have this on your list.

Mankind once religiously believed in absolute space and absolute universal time, along with the closely related concept that absolute simultaneity is valid.

In 1905-1916, that paradigm got completely blown out of the water.

RLO

Robert L. Oldershaw said...

I forgot one of my favorite nonsense ideas.

Serious academics once thought that the Earth was surrounded by a vast "dark sphere" and outside that was the "Empyrean Fires".

So stars were not objects; they were "pin-pricks" in the dark sphere, through which the more distant fires could be seen.

BRILLIANT!

Uncle Al said...

Dogma is intellectual flatulence.

http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2005/press.html
stomach ulcers as bacterial disease

It is not ignorance that ultimately blinds us, it is our many illusions of knowledge that the universe does not share. Imaginary numbers, non-Euclidean geometries, non-Newtonian physics, non-commutative algebras, economics, psychology, string theory, SUSY... must be tested. Separating Shinola from crapola is heresy, or science (when it is done well).

Epicycles rapidly converge to arbitrary accuracy. They are still wrong. A Copernican solar system with circular orbits is much worse than epicycles for the defective boundary condition. Be sufficiently heterodox. No measurable observable violates the Equivalence Principle: hydrogen atoms to pulsars in solar star or white dwarf binary systems. Eotvos experiments and the Nordtvedt effect null to at least one part in 20 trillion.

Mass distribution chirality is not a measurable observable. (Optical rotatory dispersion is not coupled to mass distribution chirality.) Ab initio physics always fumbles chirality. Symmetry breakings are inserted by hand, like epicycles, to tidy up the mess.

http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/erotor1.jpg
Somebody should look. The worst it can do is succeed.

Zephir said...

"All space is filled with equally dense material. Gold fills only a small fraction of the space assigned to it, and yet has a big mass. How much greater must be the total mass filling that space."

[Robert Hooke, 1687]

Don Foster said...

What would be really interesting it to see such a list as it might appear fifty years from now.

Johann said...

Hi Bee,

I've seen nowhere on the website of R.thaler one of the biggest nonsense lots of people still believe in today : homeopathy.

Sadly there's a lot of other nonsense that still thrive... but fight fire with fire, the more diluted the more potency ? Come on...

Bests
Johann

Zephir said...

My debunk of scientific debunks of ten spectacular "bungles"

Steven Colyer said...

In 50 years?

Gravity as a "force". We've known since 1915 that gravity is nothing more, and nothing less, than a geometrical consequence of 4-dimensional spacetime. If it makes people comfortable thinking of it as a "force", then so be it. You can think of the faux-gravity induced by centrifugal motion as a "force" as well, but that doesn't mean it is. Comparing Gravity to the 2 nuclear forces and Electromagnetism is appealing, and pretty much my hobby and Bee's and Lee's profession. Comparisons are good, as long as you realize it is apples and oranges you're comparing.

Bee said...

Hi Johann,

You know what? They actually offered me homeopathic remedies here in the hospital... Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

For me it largely depends on how one looks at such things. That being any theory, even if it being a scientific one which has been replaced or simply made more complete by another could be called such a thing, yet does this warrant it to being consider nothing more than a false belief, completely void of utility. The whole practice of science, as a consequence of its methodology has it being for the most part a process of negation, although many falsely believe it being one of affirmation. That is science not being a philosophy intended by way of method to have truth guaranteed, yet rather one designed to discover what stands at any one time as representing to be the best solution.

As for homeopathy its practice and methods have grown to encompass things that exceed the original definition, to where it’s thought of being a more holistic approach representing being alternatives or supplements to traditional medicine. I myself would suspect many such things have their effectiveness relate more often to the placebo effect and yet this itself is often improperly defined as being an aspect of belief, although one finding its effective as scientifically measurable in terms of its significance respective to wellness. In fact wellness itself is not so easily defined, with it more referring to a perceived state of being, rather than something that can be reasonably measured from a quantitative perspective.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Yes, there's many theories that are outdated because today we have more precise ones. But the cases I was most interested in are those where a scientific method would have revealed that the belief is simply plainly wrong. For example, many people actually died of bloodletting rather than getting better. Especially in the realm of medicine there's an abundance of examples that are very hard to understand today, like smearing dirt into wounds and so on. Others are stunning because of the narrative that has no foundation whatsoever, just something people thought plausible, like the idea that menstruation blood is turned into breast milk. Of course, as Don points out, the interesting question is whether there's still such believes that we hold without being aware of it. It's very likely.

And sure, homeopathy has some placebo effect if you believe in it, but then you could believe in something else, so it's not really an argument for the substance. I think the actual reason they offer homeopathy in the hospital (it's quite common to offer it for pain relief during delivery) is simply one of demand. They want to keep the patients calm, relaxed and happy, and if it's as easy as offering homeopathic remedies, why not? They also offer massage and aromatherapy in many places, they let you bring your own music etc. I am pretty sure this very likely does have a noticeable effect on making patients more comfortable indeed, though it won't help much if you're in for an emergency cesarean. Best,

B.

Arun said...

Re: homeopathy and science: Phil's remarks on the non-objectivity of well-being reminded me of this: the difference between the "photographers' consensus" and objective measurements.

For example, most photographers would say Canon's 85mm f/1.2L lens is superior as a portrait lens to Canon's 85mm f/1.8 lens. DXOmark's hard numerical measures here disagree. As a result many photographers think DxOmark is rubbish.

But perhaps it captures the fact that human perceptions are not easily quantified in the way that science prefers; it is more subtle.

Steven Colyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven Colyer said...

Bee, your thoughts are leaning heavily toward Biology over Physics at the moment and for good obvious reasons.

I think Phil hit the nail on the head when he mentioned "placebo".

Here's the number one thing people thought that was wrong, because they thought it for the longest time, from 200,000 BC to 7000 BC:

Sex and pregnancy are mutually exclusive.

That period also co-incided with Humans living in tribes of 20-60 individuals of roughly equal genders and a wide range of ages (30 being "old"), and without History. Our first "god" was The Fertility Goddess. Human women, like the females amongst all the mammals, reigned supreme.

Then we discovered that MEN actually did have a say in the "miracle" that was childbirth. Then History began, and farming then villages then cities, then war.

Then Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, and women began the long process of gaining back that which was naturally theirs. It's an ongoing process.

Bee said...

Hi Arun,

I do agree that well-being is non-objective. After all that's basically the reason why I'm so pissed off I'm stuck in the hospital: The docs actually believe I must be feeling better here, hooked up to an IV-drip, being given injections every 12 hours. And let's not mention the food. I also think there's a lot in the relation between mind and body that is badly understood today. But what I'm saying is that there are objective facts that are possible to check. You could try treating bacterial infections with placebo's, antibiotics and dirt, and the result would be pretty clear. Best,

B.

Steven Colyer said...

I would like to think Stefan et al are smuggling in decent healthy food to you every now and then.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I understood what your intent being and yet in this case I was standing in as the devil’s advocate for those readers who have come to find science itself as something to be dismissed or accepted as being a matter of belief, rather than one of understanding. Also to indicate that in some instances, when science offers no clear direction, that belief or hope, as I find it as bettered defined, can serve at times to be beneficial. That is my attitude has always been to first look to science for the answers and only when I cannot find them there do I look to what I hope might be the answer.

For instance in such respect in recent years on the first signs of a cold I take Echinacea, in the hope it will lessen the consequences of being exposed and have personally found it as being helpful. On the other hand when science presents a better alternative, which is documented as being such, I will give that a try. However what I’m truly hopeful of being of course is that the scientific method itself is discovered to one day as able to be improved upon, so then perhaps all of Plato’s shadows can be revealed as to have them seen for what they are rather then only what we believe them to be:-)

Best,

Phil

Zephir said...

Actually many phenomena can be described from many perspectives. In dense aether theory it corresponds the duality of longitudinal and transverse wave spreading in particle environment, which is closely related to AdS/CGT duality. The point of view, which enables to describe phenomena more exactly is usually less general and vice-versa.

From this reason, many theories started like ad-hoced regressions of reality (epicycle model) and after then they switched into more general model. Such conceptual switch has been usually driven with human intutition, which contradicts the causual time arrow, but it can be generalized with introduction of another dimensions.

Whereas epicycle model is highly dimensional and apparently useless for description of systems with low number of objects, insie of complex systems with many particles (like the gallaxies) the emergent perspective of epicycles mediated with gravity force becomes more and more apparent.

http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0911/0911.1594.pdf

So while for simple relativistic systems heliocentric model works well, for complex quantum-like systems the dual epicycle model becomes more relevant and the discussion of Galileo with his oponents was a manifestation of emergent gauge duality.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Steven,

” I would like to think Stefan et al are smuggling in decent healthy food to you every now and then.”

Perhaps the quality of the food being part of the plan, as it relates to treatment, for if it were good that might encourage people to wish to stay longer and be counter to having them wishing in getting well. However what Bee is confronted with is not a matter to be defined as a disease, yet rather what stands as to what amounts to being the best method to have the better outcome. So in this case the placebo (Latin:I shall please) being a matter of place, rather than one related to action and thus having it less approachable scientifically:-)

Best,

Phil

Steven Colyer said...

Phil, the producers of barely palatable food to Hospital patients make 40% profit for their services, which is so obscene that in an enlightened society it would be punishable by lifelong imprisonment, and that is why Bee has to eat crap.

Don Foster said...

Hi Bee,
It strikes me that, in the long history of science, “Eureka” moments have a way of occurring at odd times. Surely in the annals of theoretical physicists, being in the hospital and pregnant with twins is uniquely improbable. Be available.
Salud.

Christine said...

The docs actually believe I must be feeling better here, hooked up to an IV-drip, being given injections every 12 hours.

But if you were not, what could have happened then? You are saying all that was (is) not really necessary? Isn't that keeping you and the babies in the safer side?

Concerning food, that is another question.

Best,
Christine

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

The "safe side" is a difficult concept in medicine. See, the docs in Sweden said the best for me would be to stay in bed and reduce stress as much as possible. That's what I've done for 6 weeks, and I did quite well with it. The docs in Germany thought that the risk of preterm delivery is too high, so I better undergo this procedure to mature the babies lungs, because if I indeed had a preterm delivery, it would be better for the babies. Now the problem is that this treatment can induce preterm labor, so one gets additional medication to prevent labor, and more medication against the side-effects of that medication. Then there's shots against thrombosis, and some other additiva.

In any case, what happened was that they did the treatment and stopped the medication after two days. Instead of letting me go as they first said, I had to stay another day for monitoring. That sounds reasonable to me, but I think they should have told me in advance. Next day, everything looked fine, but they still didn't want to let me go, arguing the same situation that had been stable 6 weeks is now suddenly far too risky to let me go home. Next time they measured contractions, it looked pretty bad, I blame this on being extremely pissed off since that change of mind was a) not what they told me when I came b) didn't make sense to me and c) since that situation isn't going to improve basically means I'd have to stay here till delivery. So they put me back on the IV-drip, and back on the meds. On my insistence they took it off again today, but I suspect tomorrow I'll be hooked up again. Now keep in mind that I didn't have any serious problems when I came, so where's the "safe side," I wonder? Thing is that I believe stress is a major factor here, and being tied to a hospital bed, with all the noise and people is not helpful to the situation. Otoh, it's very possible all that medication has disturbed a quite fragile equilibrium, so at that point the best option might indeed be to stay here. Either way I turn it however, I think I'd have been better off staying away from the hospital. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Coincidentally, Spiegel Online has an article today on Homeopathy:

Medizin: Rückfall ins Mittelalter

Unfortunately in German, but maybe Google translate will help.

Christine said...

Hi Bee,

Hm. What you report then is quite disturbing.

Best wishes,
Christine

Lennart said...

The ulcer guy was John Lykoudis.

I wonder why Tipler says "I have some information on this subject that has never been published anywhere." without even mentioning any of the publicly known info?

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Then again at times what first presents as simply a crazy idea, more related to an old wives tale or just an act of desperation turns out to be proven as sound practice. That’s the great thing about being a human, as that thing above our necks has the potential to have many of us to be scientists, as we can observe nature, which includes the success of other species and through such observation, combined with our ability to reason find solution for ourselves .

Best,

Phil

Adriaan said...

Wikipedia gives a nice overview of the progress and believes around stomach ulcer:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_peptic_ulcer_disease_and_Helicobacter_pylori

Arun said...

I just learned that there is veterinary homeopathy! How does the placebo effect work in animals?

Steven Colyer said...

Hi Bee,

Like Christine I am also somewhat concerned at the quality of care you're receiving, but I have no idea how socialized the German medical system is. I'm sure you're aware that not only do all drugs have side effects, but any combination of 2 drugs have exponentially more, because there are unseen side effects between each drug in combination with the other drug, and with 3 or more things get nutty, or let's just say there's more research to be done by Big Pharma, other than marketing research which seems to be their favorite of late, at least here in the US.

Which is not to say that what the doctors are prescribing is wrong. I'm sure you and Stefan are researching like crazy all these drugs you're getting, but be warned that you may run into horrible first-person scenarios on-line re some chemicals, which are extreme cases the odds of which happening to any one person such as yourself being extremely rare.

You're roughly 5/6ths of the way through term, so a "premature" birth won't be that premature at this point. Platonia and Phyllis (my names for your kids after everyone's two favorite repliers here) will surely be pink and happy little babies even if they're born today. Fret less, rest more, ask a ton of questions of your doctors, and all will be well.

Arun said...

I feel the docs in Germany are being very precautionary. If they had been "in" from the beginning, they might have had more confidence that the stress-reduction that Bee was following was indeed working. On the other hand, they might have prescribed medication earlier. Who knows?

But then it is difficult to second-guess doctors - they are operating on a combination of knowledge and experience plus standard practices they learned from their local institutions.

(If you've followed physician Atul Gawande on the US health care stuff, it would be evident that in the US there is considerable variation in the "standard" treatment for anything; perhaps even more so between Sweden and Germany.)

As Steven says: "Fret less, rest more, ask a ton of questions of your doctors, and all will be well."

coraifeartaigh said...

1.the ether?
2. also te belief that all waves need a medium in which to travel

3. the persistant belief among film directors tat humans can see clearly underwater

Georg said...

Hello Bee,
I'd like to add an example, which is not really "big science" but it shows the
power of "copy without knowledge", within
the academic system.
This is the concept of "depolarisators"
in electrocemical cells.
Up to the advent of Nernst's law, the
believe was, that in a Volta cell,
the zinc dissolves, and hydrogen is deposited
at the copper plate, blocking further current. Some "depolarisator" around
the copper/carbon like chromate or
manganese dioxide was thought to oxidize that hydrogen, enabling stronger and lasting currents.
This is wrong, of course, as was demonstrated
by Nernst's law (1889)(the resulting potentials would be very different).
One should assume, that since, say,
1920 that theory of depolarisation
is dead in practice, adding some
30 years until all the "teachers"
which learned this wrong theory, died.
As a matter of fact, this concept is
printed in pysics, electrical engeneering, school etc. textbooks still today.
I read it in the internet in a university lecture script on experimental physics two years ago.
On an email I got a response from the professor,
who thanked for my mail, he excused
the mistake in the script rather
open: "I'm not an expert in electrochemistry, and, you know, such
scripts for basic lectures are copied
since generations".
Georg

Steven Colyer said...

1.the ether?
2. also the belief that all waves need a medium in which to travel


If by "ether" you are referring to "the luminiferous aether" that was disproven by the Michelson-Morley experiments and rendered unnecessary by Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, at least on the macroscopic scale, then agreed.

However, it's making a bit of a comeback, sort of, as these two passages in Wiki's article re Aether theories explain:

"John Bell, interviewed by Paul Davies in "The Ghost in the Atom" has suggested that an aether theory might help resolve the EPR paradox by allowing a reference frame in which signals go faster than light.[2] He suggests Lorentz contraction is perfectly coherent, not inconsistent with relativity, and could produce an aether theory perfectly consistent with the Michelson-Morley experiment. Bell suggests the aether was wrongly rejected on purely philosophical grounds: "what is unobservable does not exist" [p.49]. Einstein found the non-aether theory simpler and more elegant, but Bell suggests that doesn't rule it out. Besides the arguments based on his interpretation of quantum mechanics, Bell also suggests resurrecting the aether because it is a useful pedagogical device. That is, many problems are solved more easily by imagining the existence of an aether."

and

"In physics there is no concept considered exactly analogous to the aether. However, dark energy is sometimes called quintessence due to its similarity to the classical aether. Modern physics is full of concepts such as free space, spin foam, Planck particles, quantum wave state (QWS), zero-point energy, quantum foam, and vacuum energy."

3. the persistent belief among film directors tat humans can see clearly underwater

I scuba dived once with my friend Ray Optix in Bermuda, and could see quite clearly over large distances underwater, although Ray pointed out that due to the refractive index the distances were skewed. We saw a barracuda, a big one, which I guessed was 30 feet away, when we 30 feet down. We were very still and made it back up to the boat, safely, after Barry the Barracuda lost interest, thankfully. I can only conclude your scuba experiences were in New Jersey, where the water is cold, dark, and dirty. :-)

But you're right in that Hollywood screws up all manner of things Science.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Steven,

I wasn’t aware you were such a great follower of J.S. Bell. None the less as you know this view of Bell’s in essence has the underpinnings of reality requiring a dual ontology. Interestingly enough Physics World recently posted an article where it highlighted the findings of a new paper by Roger Penrose and Vahe Gurzadyan where it’s claimed they have found evidence being consistent with Penrose’s predictions respective of his Theory of Conformal Cyclic Cosmology. A few years back I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a PI Public Lecture that Penrose gave regarding all of this, where during he outlined his predictions as to find myself ever since awaiting with great expectation as to what the CMB data would reveal.

Anyway as far as I can gather when you boil it all down you end up with two things, being the potential of mass/energy and the potential of space. Interestingly enough in such a conceptualization time being something in of itself not fundamental, as it essentially losing all meaning at the end of each cycle. Anyway this idea of a cyclic universe goes back quite a long time and yet until Penrose’s new way to have it considered placing it among those as being “nonsense people once believed”.

However it must me admitted it being possible Penrose’s ideas may also come to be considered as being such, yet as it takes into account the current problems regarding information loss, respective of entropy as they relate GM and QM, I find it quite intriguing as to suggests physicists shouldn’t be concerned with information loss, as it being required and thus not being a problem at all, yet rather a necessarily real aspect and consequence respective of a solution.

Best,

Phil

Phil Warnell said...

It seems another of my comments has been swept away by the Blogger spam filter. As in the past I suspect it has to do with the number of links one has in a post so I repost it below again without them. Anyway what should I expect as such outcome being the result of artificial intelligence:-)

Hi Steven,

I wasn’t aware you were such a great follower of J.S. Bell. None the less as you know this view of Bell’s in essence has the underpinnings of reality requiring a dual ontology. Interestingly enough Physics World recently posted an article where it highlighted the findings of a new paper by Roger Penrose and Vahe Gurzadyan where it’s claimed they have found evidence being consistent with Penrose’s predictions respective of his Theory of Conformal Cyclic Cosmology. A few years back I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a PI Public Lecture that Penrose gave regarding all of this, where during he outlined his predictions as to find myself ever since awaiting with great expectation as to what the CMB data would reveal.

Anyway as far as I can gather when you boil it all down you end up with two things, being the potential of mass/energy and the potential of space. Interestingly enough in such a conceptualization time being something in of itself not fundamental, as it essentially losing all meaning at the end of each cycle. Anyway this idea of a cyclic universe goes back quite a long time and yet until Penrose’s new way to have it considered placing it among those as being “nonsense people once believed”.

However it must me admitted it being possible Penrose’s ideas may also come to be considered as being such, yet as it takes into account the current problems regarding information loss, respective of entropy as they relate GM and QM, I find it quite intriguing as to suggests physicists shouldn’t be concerned with information loss, as it being required and thus not being a problem at all, yet rather a necessarily real aspect and consequence respective of a solution.

Best,

Phil

Robert L. Oldershaw said...

Follow-up on Steve's comments regarding the existence of an aether.

The M-M experiment ruled out a stationary universal aether.

It did not rule out more sophisticated types of aether.

When Einstein was speaking carefully to other physicists about this specific subject, no one was laboring under the misconception that the M-M experiment and SR ruled out anything besides the stationary universal aether that had previously been assumed to exist.

Unfortunately, lesser minds leapt to the unwarranted conclusion that all aether models were falsified. No way, Jose!

RLO

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Robert,

I would agree with both you and Steven respective to this. More importantly however in respect to the fundamental premise on which it depends, Einstein himself was later to discover the error of his ways. This is demonstrated in the following quote which recounts a discussion he had with Heisenberg upon their first meeting. It should be noted the emphasis is something I’ve added as to better make the salient points being clear. I then find it interesting, consistent with Einstein’s thoughts on the matter, as to which in the end will be found as being nonsense in relation to what physicists believe.

”For the first time, therefore, I now had the opportunity to talk with Einstein himself. On the way home, he questioned me about my background, my studies with Sommerfeld. But on arrival, he at once began with a central question about the philosophical foundation of the new quantum mechanics. He pointed out to me that in my mathematical description the notion of "electron path" did not occur at all, but that in a cloud chamber the track of the electron can of course be observed directly. It seemed to him absurd to claim that there was indeed an electron path in the cloud chamber, but none in the interior of the atom. The notion of a path could not be dependent, after all, on the size of the space in which the electron's movements were occuring. I defended myself to begin with by justifying in detail the necessity for abandoning the path concept within the interior of the atom. I pointed out that we cannot, in fact, observe such a path; what we actually record are frequencies of the light radiated by the atom, intensities and transition probabilities, but no actual path. And since it is but rational to introduce into a theory only such quantities as can be directly observed, the concept of electron paths ought not, in fact, to figure in the theory.

” To my astonishment, Einstein was not at all satisfied with this argument. He thought that every theory in fact contains unobservable quantities. The principle of employing only observable quantities simply cannot be consistently carried out. And when I objected that in this I had merely been applying the type of philosophy that he, too, has made the basis of his special theory of relativity, he answered simply: "Perhaps I did use such philosophy earlier, and also wrote of it, but it is nonsense all the same."... ... He pointed out to me that the very concept of observation was itself already problematic. Every observation, so he argued, presupposes that there is an unambiguous connection known to us, between the phenomenon to be observed and the sensation which eventually penetrates into our consciousness. But we can only be sure of this connection, if we know the natural laws by which it is determined. If, however, as is obviously the case in modern atomic physics, these laws have to be called into question, then even the concept of "observation" loses its clear meaning. In that case, it is the theory which first determines what can be observed. .”

- Encounters with Einstein by Werner Heisenberg © 1983

Best,

Phil

Steven Colyer said...

This is test to see if posting will bring up Phil's latest comment, because I see it in Recent Comments but not in the actual comments section.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Steven,

Thanks for your effort yet I think it has to do with how much HTML one uses in comments as opposed to who is sending them or the contents. I’m curious however if you were able to read my comment, such as having received it in your email as part of the post’s comment thread.

Best,

Phil

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Steven,

His is the original comment yet the bolded emphasis removed.

Hi Robert,

I would agree with both you and Steven respective to this. More importantly however in respect to the fundamental premise on which it depends, Einstein himself was later to discover the error of his ways. This is demonstrated in the following quote which recounts a discussion he had with Heisenberg upon their first meeting. It should be noted the emphasis is something I’ve added as to better make the salient points being clear. I then find it interesting, consistent with Einstein’s thoughts on the matter, as to which in the end will be found as being nonsense in relation to what physicists believe.

”For the first time, therefore, I now had the opportunity to talk with Einstein himself. On the way home, he questioned me about my background, my studies with Sommerfeld. But on arrival, he at once began with a central question about the philosophical foundation of the new quantum mechanics. He pointed out to me that in my mathematical description the notion of "electron path" did not occur at all, but that in a cloud chamber the track of the electron can of course be observed directly. It seemed to him absurd to claim that there was indeed an electron path in the cloud chamber, but none in the interior of the atom. The notion of a path could not be dependent, after all, on the size of the space in which the electron's movements were occuring. I defended myself to begin with by justifying in detail the necessity for abandoning the path concept within the interior of the atom. I pointed out that we cannot, in fact, observe such a path; what we actually record are frequencies of the light radiated by the atom, intensities and transition probabilities, but no actual path. And since it is but rational to introduce into a theory only such quantities as can be directly observed, the concept of electron paths ought not, in fact, to figure in the theory.”

” To my astonishment, Einstein was not at all satisfied with this argument. He thought that every theory in fact contains unobservable quantities. The principle of employing only observable quantities simply cannot be consistently carried out. And when I objected that in this I had merely been applying the type of philosophy that he, too, has made the basis of his special theory of relativity, he answered simply: "Perhaps I did use such philosophy earlier, and also wrote of it, but it is nonsense all the same."... ... He pointed out to me that the very concept of observation was itself already problematic. Every observation, so he argued, presupposes that there is an unambiguous connection known to us, between the phenomenon to be observed and the sensation which eventually penetrates into our consciousness. But we can only be sure of this connection, if we know the natural laws by which it is determined. If, however, as is obviously the case in modern atomic physics, these laws have to be called into question, then even the concept of "observation" loses its clear meaning. In that case, it is the theory which first determines what can be observed. .”

- Encounters with Einstein by Werner Heisenberg © 1983

Best,

Phil

Robert L. Oldershaw said...

Nice WH-AE debate on some basic issues.

I agree with Einstein that strict Positivism is nonsense and the history of science would be very poor indeed if we only allowed into our models what can be directly observed.

I also agree with Einstein that until you have an adequate understanding of the basic physics of a system, you cannot expect to correctly interpret the meaning of **indirect** observational results. One must use reasonably direct observations to infer what is going on, then you can understand the more cryptic or "black-box" observations. Isn't that somewhat circular? Definitely, but in science you can use the definitive predictions/testing of the scientific method to test whether your intuitive and definitely heuristic theory is correct or not.

Einstein believed that QM had made important advances, but that the actual underlying physics had not been fully understood, and so many hypothetical implications of the observed results were incorrect.

I would bet $1,000 to 1 warm Bavarian-cream donut that Einstein's view will be vindicated in the not-too-distant future.

RLO

Bee said...

Hi Steven, Phil,

I've checked the spam queue, there's no comments stuck there. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Steven,

The care I receive is for all I can say excellent. The problem is, I suppose, that my attitude towards medication of all sorts is: avoid if anyhow possible. Needless to say, the docs don't quite share this opinion. They seem to share it less so in Germany than in Sweden. (That, I suspect, is because the German health system works better, while the Swedes try to keep people out of it so it runs more smoothly.) Either way, I finally convinced them to take a break with the meds, I had to stay 2 more days for monitoring. Nothing of concern happened, so I'm back home and glad nobody wakes me up at 6am to measure temperature and give me a shot ;-) I'm just somewhat pissed off because in hindsight the whole episode seems to me superfluous. Otoh, you never know, maybe the docs were right. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi George,

That's an interesting example. It reminds me of what I learned writing the post on magnetic monopoles: there used to be a Coulomb's law for magnetic "point sources," which over the course of time silently vanished out of physics textbooks, up to the point that today nobody who learns physics hears of it anymore, though historically it's an interesting anecdote. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

”I've checked the spam queue, there's no comments stuck there.”

That’s interesting as the comments I’m referring to immediately came to me at the time of posting via email and grouped as part of the thread. I’ve since reposted both, one with all the (HTML) links removed and the other I had no links yet had to remove all of the (HTML) bolding. As you might recall this has happened before, only for the post to show up several days later. This new Blogger spam filter is very weird as to what has it decide what is and isn’t posted. As for instance the comment I sent where I made a linked reference to Kangaroo Care despite having four HTML links wasn’t filtered out and thus I haven’t been able to find a set pattern which would suggest the exact rule (logic) the algorithm is following.

Best,

Phil


P.S. It's good to hear you are safely back at home and hope this remains true for several more weeks.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

This expansion of spam filtering I find to be in parallel to what the consequences of terrorism brings. That being as the methods of the spammers (terrorists) improves the security measures taken as a result carries the price of ever increasing restrictions of freedom and inconvenience on those which the measures are designed to protect. Also it comes with the consequence of escalating the costs to maintain the system and decreases its speed and efficiency. Let’s just hope in future that to post a comment doesn’t require taking a full body scan or a pat down as has occurred in the situation it parallels :-)

Best,

Phil

Steven Colyer said...

Magnetic monopoles, again, Bee?

Well they're definitely in the set of "possible nonsense", but even if so they make for excellent teaching tools, along with naked singularities and non-rotating black holes, these last two of which I find very difficult to imagine actually existing.

Anyway, on monopoles, funny you should mention them as I'm trying to understand 't Hooft's latest paper, http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1011/1011.0061v1.pdf of Oct. 30, The Conformal Constraint in Canonical Quantum Gravity, which ends thusly:

Our theory indeed is complex. We found that the presence of non-Abelian Yang-Mills
fields, scalar fields and spinor fields is required, while U(1) gauge fields are forbidden (at
least at weak coupling, since the β function for the charges here is known to be positive).
Because of this, one “prediction” stands out: there will be magnetic monopoles, although
presumably their masses will be of the order of the Planck mass.
Finally, there is one other firm prediction: the constants of nature will indeed be
truly constant. Attempts to experimentally observe variations in constants such as the
finestructure constant or the proton electron mass ratio, with time, or position in distant
galaxies, are predicted to yield negative results.

Steven Colyer said...

Well I just posted a comment and that didn't go through either, dang. Maybe China cut the trans-Atlantic underseas cable as a pre-emptive strike before launching Korean War II? I hope not.

Anyway, and THIS time I will save my work, I wrote:

Magnetic monopoles, Bee?

Funny you should mention that, as I ran across this interesting paper by Gerard 't Hooft of Oct 30th just yesterday on The Conformal Constant in Canonical Quantum Gravity, the end of which is:

Our theory indeed is complex. We found that the presence of non-Abelian Yang-Mills
fields, scalar fields and spinor fields is required, while U(1) gauge fields are forbidden (at
least at weak coupling, since the β function for the charges here is known to be positive).
Because of this, one “prediction” stands out: there will be magnetic monopoles, although
presumably their masses will be of the order of the Planck mass.
Finally, there is one other firm prediction: the constants of nature will indeed be
truly constant. Attempts to experimentally observe variations in constants such as the finestructure constant or the proton electron mass ratio, with time, or position in distant
galaxies, are predicted to yield negative results.

Robert L. Oldershaw said...

This looks like a very nice definitive prediction, but read the small print!

t'Hooft: "Because of this, one “prediction” stands out: there will be magnetic monopoles, although presumably their masses will be of the order of the Planck mass."

If you try to test this "prediction" and the 'mag monos' don't show up in the relevant parameter space, then proponents can just say: "Well, we guessed wrong on the mass estimate. We must adjust the theory and then build a bigger instrument and search a larger parameter space." This bull@#$^ can go on indefinitely, as it has for the Higgs bimbo, WIMPs, axions, sterile neutrinos, etc., etc., etc., ...

A definitive prediction means putting it all on the line for a definitive up or down vote by nature. And do not tell me it cannot be done. That is pure bull%$*# too.

RLO

cody said...

I was taught that the theory of phlogiston originated with the observation that boring a canon barrel appeared to release heat (rather than generate it).

And aether obviously from the observations of light behaving as a wave.

I guess spontaneous generation was based on the observation that maggots appeared in dead organic matter.

And Lamarckian inheritance as an explanation for the long necks of giraffes?

I feel like I should know a lot more of these...

Lsyn said...

Back before the world was fully mapped out, many people believed that there had to be a huge land mass in the Southern Hemisphere (comparable to the land mass in the Northern Hemisphere.) Why? Well, they reasoned, if such a mass didn't exist, the Earth would flip upside-down!

Source: one of my atmospheric science professors, who is a bit of an amateur science historian.

Plato said...

There Be Dragons?

Map of North America from 1566 showing both Terra In Cognita and Mare In Cognito.



As with any mapping, a better drawing comes with a better investigation and exploration?

Georg said...

I was taught that the theory of phlogiston originated with the observation that boring a canon barrel appeared to release heat (rather than generate it).

You should pay more attention, when you are thaught.
Google for "Count Rumford"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Thompson